Knee-jerk politics won't save the crab


November 14, 1992|By TOM HORTON

Wanted: ways to conserve one of Chesapeake Bay's greatest remaining natural resources in the face of widespread and growing pressure. But the solution must not offend a living soul.

That seems to be what Maryland officials are cynically seeking in scuttling away from even the modest regulations proposed recently to limit crab harvests in the bay.

The whole affair, involving both the Department of Natural Resources and the legislature, is one more case study in how not to manage the seafood stocks of the bay.

To recap the crab situation, catches throughout the bay have remained high for most of the past decade. (A severe drop this year appears to be more weather-related than anything else.) But underlying the good harvests is the fact that a lot more effort is needed to sustain them. For example, the number of crab pots in use -- pots account for 70 percent of all commercial harvests -- has risen from an estimated 600,000 in the mid-1980s to a million or more today.

As other of their fisheries like oysters and rockfish have declined, watermen are crabbing longer hours and longer seasons; and recreational crab catches have burgeoned to as much as half the bay's annual commercial take, 80 million to 100 million pounds.

Since 1987, both Maryland and Virginia have been committed, as part of their larger Chesapeake Bay restoration programs, to developing management plans to prevent overfishing of crabs and other species. With few exceptions, progress has been slow and deadlines for action routinely missed.

No one can say how close we have pushed the blue crab to its breaking point, but most experts think we are close, and agree it's a risk we can't take.

"The crab is our last great fishery, and our test species for effective management," says L. Eugene Cronin, a longtime bay scientist and retired director of the University of Maryland's environmental research laboratories. "It spends its entire life in the bay; it ranges the entire bay; it is of exceptional value, and every aspect of harvesting it is susceptible to our management. "If we fall short of good management for this species," says Mr. Cronin, "it is difficult to imagine real success for any species in the bay."

Against this background, Maryland's DNR last month proposed regulations to ban crabbing on Sundays and during late afternoon and night hours. The regulations also would cut back on crabbing gear and catches allowed both recreational fishermen and the growing number of "non-commercial" license holders, who are often actually spare-time commercial crabbers.

By DNR's own admission, the proposals wouldn't make a large (( impact on crab harvests -- and that really is the beauty of acting now, while crabs are still a healthy species. In a few more years, ongoing scientific studies should be able to give us more precise yardsticks for managing the crab. Meanwhile, all we need to do is keep pressure on the species from growing even further.

The sad history of too many other bay species has been to wait until they do crash, at which point draconian restrictions are necessary, with major impacts on fishermen. The crab would be the first time we moved prudently and conservatively in advance of a crisis.

But look at what is happening. After fierce protests by watermen, the legislature's Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review (AELR) Committee effectively short-circuited the conservation process.

In an Oct. 9 letter to DNR, the committee, which oversees regulations, said it would not be able to review the new crab rules "within the normal time period and requests that you delay . . . adoption . . . in the best long-term interests of the state."

Such a position has nothing to do with the state's long-term interests, and everything to do with short-sighted, knee-jerk politics by committee members and other legislators from areas whose watermen led the protest.

DNR Secretary Torrey C. Brown and his fisheries administrator, William P. Jensen, have responded by referring the whole matter to a 20-member committee, composed largely of commercial crabbing interests, and giving them two months to come up with restrictions everyone can agree on. The problem is that in the world of bay fisheries, there is no such thing as meaningful restrictions that everyone can agree on, and Dr. Brown and Mr. Jensen know it as well as anyone.

It is not as if DNR made up its crabbing proposals on a whim, or with no knowledge of the fishery. In fact, before the list was ever presented publicly, the whole package was, in effect, "cleared" with Larry Simns, president of the Maryland State Watermen's Association.

Mr. Simns apparently did not think the package represented any shattering impact on his colleagues -- until the hearings, after which he disavowed the proposals.

Indeed, the restrictions like Sunday crabbing probably will have more impact on some Baltimore area crabbers who sell to restaurants that day than on crabbers farther from urban centers.

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