Governor wants crabbing regulated 'We now face not a crisis, but a concern about the crab population,' he declares

June 05, 1993|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

Warning that Chesapeake Bay's most important fishery could be headed for trouble, Gov. William Donald Schaefer yesterday proposed sweeping restrictions on crabbing in Maryland waters.

For the first time, the state would require licenses for recreational crabbers and would cap the number of commercial licenses at the present number, about 3,000.

The conservation measures are designed to head off what state officials fear is a growing threat of depletion through overfishing.

"We now face not a crisis, but a concern about the crab population," Mr. Schaefer said at a news conference in %o Annapolis.

The bay's crab stocks still seem healthy, despite last year's poor harvest, the governor said. But he added, "We've gotten some early warning signs that we have to do something to protect crabs."

Last year's commercial catch was only 30 million pounds, down by one-third from 1991 and the lowest harvest recorded since state officials revised their catch surveys in 1981.

The commercial harvest had remained relatively stable until last year, averaging about 47 million pounds during the past decade. But the amount of crabbing has grown, and there has been a gradual decline in each watermen's average daily catch in recent years.

"More people are pursuing crabs, using more gear, working longer hours," said Dr. Torrey C. Brown, state natural resources secretary. "Some recreational crabbers are selling their catch. Everybody has to back off."

As part of the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort, Maryland and Virginia both pledged four years ago to limit fishing pressure on the bay's most important resource.

Maryland's commercial crab harvest is worth $21 million a year on average, more than any other state fishery, and the crab has long since replaced oysters as the living symbol of the bay. About half a million Marylanders fish for crabs, using traps, nets and chicken necks.

Dr. Brown outlined nine proposed changes in state crabbing regulations or laws. Commercial and recreational crabbers alike would face restrictions on the hours when they can work and the amount of gear they can use.

For instance:

* Commercial crabbers could work only from 3 a.m. to 5 p.m., and each license holder would be limited to 300 crab "pots," or boxlike underwater traps made of wire mesh. There are no limits now on either working hours or the number of pots watermen may use.

As a further conservation measure, all crab pots would be refitted with openings, called cull rings, allowing small crabs to escape.

* Recreational crabbers, currently unlicensed, would be required buy a $7 permit. They would be limited to five crab traps each and no more than 500 feet of "trotline," a submerged cord with chunks of eel or chicken necks attached as bait.

* In perhaps the most controversial change, the so-called noncommercial license category would be dropped. About 13,500 crabbers now hold such a permit, and officials say that many sell their catch, making them commercial fishermen in disguise.

* In another significant change, recreational crabbing would be permitted from sunrise to sunset only, and the daily catch would be limited to one bushel per person or two bushels per boat.

Though recreational crabbers are not required to report their catch, a state study estimates that 500,000 people in the state caught 11 million pounds in 1990, or nearly one-fourth of what commercial crabbers landed.

Some of the proposed restrictions, such as the time limits, could be imposed by July 1 via emergency regulations, provided there is no public outcry. State officials planned to consult with watermen and legislators in the next two weeks to see what can be done this crabbing season, which began April 1 and ends Dec. 31.

But other, more sweeping restrictions, such as limiting the amount of gear commercial crabbers may use, will not be implemented until next season.

Moreover, capping the number of commercial crabbing licenses will require legislative action in 1994. So will the proposals to TTC require licenses for recreational crabbers and to drop the noncommercial license.

The state's plan drew praise from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which has long warned that the bay's crabs are in danger of being overfished.

"We think it's very bold and it's needed," said William C. Baker, president of the Annapolis-based environmental group. "It will help avert a crisis. We hope Virginia will follow suit."

That state is considering similar crabbing restrictions, said Jack Travelstead of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

Reaction from watermen was mixed.

"It's nothing we can't work with," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. But he added that some of the restrictions, particularly the 300-pot limit and the 5 p.m. curfew, are likely to upset some watermen, even though most agree that something must be done to reduce fishing pressure )) on crabs.

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