Shrinking catches growing despair Decline in crabs plagues third-generation waterman

September 13, 1992|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Staff Writer

ABOARD THE LADY FRANNY Nine years ago, Herbie Cain decided to follow his father and grandfather into rockfishing. There is something glorious about the feeling of pulling a net of striped bass from the Chesapeake Bay, he says.

But poor catches caused Maryland to ban striped bass fishing in 1985, so he stowed his nets and bought clam dredging equipment. Clamming wasn't as exciting, but it was profitable.

Then last year, the clam catch dried up.

So on this morning, the 26-year-old Rock Hall native is peering into the murky Chester River for blue crabs -- without much luck.

It is a story being repeated hundreds of times across the Chesapeake Bay. Watermen have been driven from one failing fishery to another, until now most are competing over the only major fishery left: the blue crab.

But the crowds of fishing boats plying the bay return home nearly empty these days. The number of crabs pulled out of the Chesapeake so far this year is less than a third of the normal catch.

Those searching for reasons for the poor catch are finding the way as murky as the water of the Chester. They blame the weather. Or pollution. Or the watermen themselves.

But all fear the downturn is a warning sign that the crabs -- like the striped bass and clams -- will disappear, too. "This is a serious situation," said William Goldsborough, a scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

So serious, in fact, that the state is drafting regulations that would, for the first time, limit crabbers' catches. "Everyone agrees we need to do something" for crabs and watermen, says Howard King, fisheries program chief for the state Department of Natural Resources.

A day in the life of a waterman like Mr. Cain shows how endangered both populations are.

A little after 5 a.m., the drumbeat of the diesel engine breaks the soft peace of the harbor.

In 15 minutes Mr. Cain has reached an inlet where Swan Creek meets the bay. He shines his spotlight across the black water, looking for buoys of competitors.

As he sweeps the white beam, two beams flash across the bow from other early risers preparing to lay their trotlines in the same inlet.

"That's why I like to get here early," Mr. Cain said. "There's so much competition."

When clams and oysters were still plentiful, approximately 5,000 commercial crabbers plied Maryland's section of the bay, state officials say.

But this year, four out of every five clammers have switched to crabs. Add to that oystermen, eelers and other fishermen who've seen their traditional catches drop, and there are probably more than 6,000 commercial fishermen chasing crabs this summer.

Mr. Cain drops two concrete weights connected to a long nylon rope into the water. Every 6 feet of rope, a chicken neck dangles from a few inches of green twine.

Mr. Cain admits he gets teased by non-watermen for using that bait. After all, "chicken necker" is the derogatory phrase watermen have used for years to describe amateur crabbers.

But the bait of choice, eels, has gotten expensive and scarce. And bull lips, another favorite bait, cost twice as much as chicken.

He lays down two lines totaling 4,200 feet and immediately turns the boat around, aiming for the floating antifreeze bottle that nTC marks the start of his first line.

As the sky begins to gray, he grabs a section of line and drapes it over a bar attached to the boat. Inching the boat forward, he pulls up a few feet of line and then returns it to the river bottom.

His eyes are focused on the water, searching for a flash of blue -- the signal that a crab is nibbling on the rising bait. Ten, 20, 50 soggy chicken necks rise to the surface before one yields a crab.

When he sees the blue, he plunges his net into the water. Crabs usually drop off and try to escape as the bait reaches the surface. But Mr. Cain expertly scoops the crab up and dumps it in a wooden storage box.

It takes about 20 minutes to run the boat along the two lines. As he heads back to the first line to begin again, he surveys his catch: 10 crabs. Seven are "Number Ones" (with bodies wider than 6 inches), which bring as much as $1 apiece; three are "Number Twos" (with bodies 5 to 6 inches wide), which bring only 12 cents apiece.

As Mr. Cain goes back and forth over the lines, pulling up sometimes 10, sometimes 30, crabs a trip, he concedes that watching hundreds of barren chicken necks rise and fall back to the water "gets pretty depressing." Last year, he pulled in as many as 1,000 crabs a day -- hard, nonstop work, but fun.

Today's poor catch isn't just bad luck. In the first seven months of the year, Maryland crabbers caught only 6.5 million pounds of crabs, down from the 20 million pounds normally caught in the period.

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