Poor crab harvest has state weighing limit on hours, gear Measure draws mixed reviews from watermen

September 28, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

With blue crabs harder to find in the Chesapeake Bay this year than in recent times, Maryland fisheries officials have proposed for the first time limiting crabbers' catches by restricting their gear and harvest times.

Environmentalists say the state's move is a good first step toward protecting the bay's last healthy fishery from over-harvesting. But the proposal has set off a civil war of sorts among watermen, pitting crabbers from Southern Maryland and the lower Eastern Shore against those from the Baltimore area.

The Department of Natural Resources has drafted changes in state crabbing regulations that would limit the number of collapsible crab traps and other gear that can be used by people catching crabs for sport.

The agency also wants to bar commercial crabbers from working on Sundays or from 3 p.m. until 4:30 a.m. the rest of the week.

The changes, to be aired in hearings in Annapolis on Tuesday night and in Easton on Wednesday, are prompted by a plan for protecting crabs that Maryland and Virginia both adopted three years ago. The plan, drawn up as part of the bay restoration effort, recommended that both states limit the catch because growing numbers of fishermen using more and more gear could cause the crab population to decline. If adopted, the changes would take effect next April.

Bountiful crab catches continued to increase until this year, however, when cooler weather may have kept as many crabs from hatching or growing as large as they have in recent years. In the first seven months of this year, Maryland crabbers only caught 6.5 million pounds, about one-third of what had been caught during the same period last year.

"Everybody knows something needs being done after a slack year," said Glenn Evans, president of the Tangier Sound Watermen's Association on Smith Island. His group, which represents about 100 crabbers in the traditional Somerset County watermen's community, supports the restrictions "100 percent," he said, noting that they only work Monday through Saturday now.

"We've been here 300 years and never had to crab before on Sunday in our life," Mr. Evans said. A Sunday ban also would mean a "day of rest" for the bay.

But Daniel Beck, an Essex waterman, said the Sunday ban would deprive him of $20,000 in income because he sells that day's catch to Baltimore area restaurants.

"If they told me I couldn't crab on Sunday, I'd crab illegal," said Mr. Beck, president of the 100-strong Baltimore County watermen's association. "I can't give up my living for an unsubstantiated ban."

Contended Mr. Evans: "The bay doesn't get enough rest as it should. Seven days a week nonstop for 35 weeks a year of crabbing -- that takes a right good toll on the bay, we feel."

But Mr. Beck suggested that lower bay watermen's reasons for wanting a Sunday crabbing ban were more financial than environmental. They live too far from major urban areas to sell much of their catch to restaurants, which have a lot of demand for crabs on weekends, he said.

"I don't believe the crab's in serious trouble yet," said Russell Spangler, another Baltimore County waterman, from Fort Howard. "We've had three or four banner years in a row, and maybe we're due for a bummer."

Despite the watermen's complaints, natural resources officials say the new rules should put a bigger crimp in the catch of sport crabbers than in commercial harvests.

"It would definitely crank down on the recreational [crabbing] effort," said Steven Early, assistant state fisheries director. The new rules would limit to five the number of crab traps or crab net rings people may use without getting a $10 license, and it caps the amount of trotline noncommercial crabbers can have at 1,000 feet.

A trotline is a cord with pieces of eel or chicken necks tied to it as bait, from which crabs are caught using a dip net. Recreational crabbers have been known to lay several thousand feet of trotline in the water, said Mr. Early.

State officials estimate that recreational crabbers -- including untold thousands who use just a chicken neck and a net or a few traps -- take 32 percent to 44 percent of all the crabs caught in Maryland waters.

Restricting the hours and days for commercial crabbing should not have a major impact on the harvest, Mr. Early contended, because watermen can adjust their work schedules.

But William Goldsborough, fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the Sunday and evening bans were "a significant measure" curbing commercial harvests. He said the time limits could prevent watermen from putting out as many crab pots, the wire-mesh cages that trap crabs when they swim in seeking the bait.

"It had gotten out of hand," Mr. Goldsborough said, "where people were running two crews a day and fishing pots at night with a spotlight, around the clock. That just amounted to too much effort, to overfishing."

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