ROCK HALL — Rock Hall-- Except for the shimmering Chesapeake Ba waters that surround him and the mud and bay grass on his overalls, Wayne Wilson's job is as regimented as any spot on a Baltimore assembly line.
In one sinewy flow of movements, the young, blond waterman leans over the side of a bay workboat, pulls a wire mesh crab pot on board, dumps old fish bait out, turns around, shakes a dozen or more lively blue crabs onto a table, refills the
pot with fresh bait and throws it back overboard.
The process takes about 40 seconds. He begins about 4 a.m. and repeats it 700 times a day, six days a week.
This is life on a serious crab-catching factory in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.
The boat's captain, Donald Pierce, like many captains around the bay, is out catching the estuary's last plentiful resource and the only one he can still depend on to make a living since fishing for shad, oysters and rockfish dried up.
On a hazy summer day, he is working the bay's bottom hard for the ubiquitous, beautiful blue crab. And it is paying off. He is getting great catches -- some days he can pull in 80 bushels a day -- or about 560 dozen crabs -- that will earn an average of $20 a bushel at the dock.
"Every baby crab that rode with mama must have lived," Mr. Piercesaid. "Really, right now we have too many. . . . We aren't getting enough money [per bushel]."
Despite the bounty and the good money that can be made for a summer's work on the water, some are growing nervous. They have begun to wonder: Will we go from boom to bust? Will one of Maryland's largest industries fall apart in the next several years?
"You have the potential for a tremendous collapse," said William Goldsborough, a staff scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
A decline isn't evident today, but some scientists and state officials worry that the crabs are sending out distress signals.
Watermen are working harder to catch the same number of crabs, there was a drop in the adult crab population in the spring and there has been a large increase in the number of people crabbing.
"We don't see anything that tells us there is a problem out there," said W. Peter Jensen, chief of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources fisheries division. "Our nervousness is [because] so many people depend on that resource. We don't want to wait and see before there is a resource problem."
To better understand the size of the crab population, the DNR is learning to predict the abundance of crabs in a particular year by looking at the number of crabs buried in the bay's bottom mud during the winter. And while a slight decline has been seen in the harvests during the past several years, no one knows if it is a downward trend or just a natural fluctuation.
But evidence is mounting that commercial watermen, part-time professionals and recreational crabbers -- known as chicken neckers, because they hang chicken parts on string off the side of piers or bridges -- are increasing in number. The question Maryland natural resources specialists are trying to answer is whether they are putting such a strain on the crab population that it will challenge one of the most hearty and indestructible species in the bay.
This much is sure, though. There are a lot of watermen depending on crabbing and a lot of crabbers out there -- at least 12,000 who are licensed by the state, a number that has increased gradually over the last five years, Mr. Jensen said.
Donald Pierce is one of those watermen who have turned to crabbing big time since the state banned striped bass fishing in 1985. He once depended as much on rockfishing as crabbing, but now Mr. Pierce catches crabs from April to Christmas.
"What I make in these eight months has to keep me going," he said, shouting to compete with the roar of his big diesel engine and a radio playing rock and roll. He steers his 40-foot workboat to the next pot, leans over, grabs it with a boat hook so that Wayne Wilson can empty it of the day's catch.
"We are putting more effort into it, but we are getting more out of it," he said.
Watermen have increased the number of hours they fish, the number of men in a boat and the amount of equipment.
Twenty years ago, the common practice was for one man to have 150 or 200 pots. Today it is not unusual for watermen, like Mr. Pierce, to keep 700 pots in the water or to have crews of three men. Some even run 1,500 pots by working the water nearly 24 hours a day with spotlights or checking their pots every other day rather than every day.
Statistics suggest that watermen depend on the crab for a much greater percentage of their income than 10 years ago.