As crabs sleep, crabbers head for court Maryland watermen sue Virginia over fees

December 23, 1991|By Liz Bowie sjB

In the old days they settled their differences with shotgun blasts fired over the stern of a workboat.

Now they let their lawyers do the fighting.

Convinced that Virginia is trying to run them out of some of the Chesapeake Bay's best crabbing grounds, a group of Maryland watermen has filed a lawsuit against Virginia, alleging they are being discriminated against with an exorbitant out-of-state license fee.

The war is over who gets to mine the bay for its rich resources or, put more bluntly, who makes the most money.

This time of year, crabs hunker down in the mud at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay for a long winter's nap, making it easy for crabbers to nab them. Dragging hydraulic dredges -- heavy chains that form a bag -- behind their workboats, the watermen pull the crabs up from the mud from December to March near Cape Charles, Va., and deliver them to restaurant owners ready to pay a premium for the winter delicacy.

Marylanders want a piece of this lucrative action, which was outlawed in this state as a conservation measure. And Smith Islanders have always looked longingly south from their outpost in the middle of the bay to the miles of prime hunting grounds just a few miles away in Virginia.

But the Virginia-Maryland line, patrolled by marine police, stood like a Berlin wall in front of them.

So 10 years ago they filed suit and won. The judge said commercial watermen have the right to catch crabs or fish anywhere in the bay.

Did that end the fighting?

No way.

The Virginia General Assembly battled back last year with a 300 percent increase in the fishing license fee they charge out-of-state watermen -- $350 to $1,150.

That has Maryland watermen angry.

"They can't keep us out legally, so they are going to price us out," said John C. Tyler, president of the Smith Island Waterman's Association, who filed the suit with four other watermen. Even if they can pay the fee, Mr. Tyler said, there is a principle involved. "If we sit back and pay the $1,150, they would keep increasing it until we stopped coming," he said.

Virginia officials say the dramatic fee increase was only intended to make Maryland watermen help pay for state programs to conserve the Chesapeake Bay and fund the marine police.

Del. Robert S. Bloxom, the Virginia legislator who introduced the bill to raise the fee, said Virginia added up the cost and divided by the number of watermen. Since Virginia watermen pay state taxes, they are exempt from the fee, he said.

And he argued that since Maryland is legally required to match the out-of-state fee, there is no equity issue.

But Virginia watermen have no interest in going north to Maryland waters in the summer to crab when they can stay home and bring in the same harvest. So Virginians won't be paying an out-of-state fee.

Virginia watermen acknowledge that they lobbied lawmakers for some simple competitive protection.

One-third of the fleet of boats dredging in Virginia this winter are from Maryland, said Allan T. Wood, secretary of the Eastern Shore Watermen's Association in Virginia. "We feel the resource is limited by years of overfishing and pollution," he said. "It is taking part of the Virginia commercial watermen's resources away from them."

"Ever since people been drawing lines there's been feuding," said Elijah Lee Wilson, a Crisfield waterman.

Mr. Tyler remembers some of the earlier disputes. At age 16, he strayed into Virginia waters to crab and was chased and caught by Virginia police. Muddy and scared, he was hauled into court and fined $56. Without the money to pay the fine, he sat in jail for several hours until word traveled over the water back to Smith Island and his parents paid the fine.

That was enough excitement for Mr. Tyler. He and the other watermen who filed the suit figure their legal expenses may run $20,000 or more, so several watermen's groups have pledged financial support. "It is better to let the lawyers do the fighting," he said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.