Crabbing cap means radical change


June 12, 1993|By TOM HORTON

In proposing to limit fishing pressure on the Chesapeake blue crab, Governor Schaefer and his Department of Natural Resources may have set in motion profound changes in how the bay is harvested.

One change is long overdue: a redefinition of recreational crabbing as just that -- people out to get a bushel or two to steam.

But part-time crabbing for profit would be cut. In the new licensing structure, thousands of part-timers -- ranging from commercial license-holders who aren't watermen to weekenders who sell their catch -- would lose their permits.

Such choices are lamentable, but needed, if we intend to preserve the occupation of waterman and provide recreational crabbing for growing numbers of residents and tourists.

The biggest shift, though, is the state's apparent move toward full-blown "limited entry" commercial fishing -- an end to the era ofthe "commons," a bay open to anyone choosing to wrest a living from it.

At the governor's press conference eight days ago, state officials indicated they would ask next year's legislature to cap commercial crabbing licenses at a level that would prevent fishing pressure from overwhelming the bay's bread-and-butter catch.

"But we can't just cap crab licenses . . . we think we will have to cap commercial licenses over all," Paul Massicot, chief of the DNR's Tidewater Administration, said this week.

The reason: Crabbing is so interwoven with everything else the bay's watermen do to make a living. Many already get consolidated licenses, covering a variety of species year round, including crabs. Moreover, nowadays it's doubtful that a waterman could make a living without a crabbing license, no matter how hard he pursued finfish or oysters.

In other words, if you put a permanent cap on the number of people permitted to crab the bay for a living, you actually are capping the number who can be watermen.

Limited entry has immense ramifications because it converts public property -- the bay -- into what amounts to a private preserve. Suddenly the value of a crabbing license, which before was never more than state fees, becomes a function of supply and demand.

In Alaskan waters, with their highly valuable salmon and herring fisheries, limited entry has sent license prices into the hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases.

You wouldn't see those prices here, but there would be a market created for fishing rights to the bay.

Questions abound as to how the state would regulate such a system. Could licenses be hoarded, bought by corporations, inherited and retired as needed for conservation? Or even bought up by animal rights groups? Would watermen's children have first dibs on buying in?

DNR officials frankly don't have their act together on the complexities raised by their proposals of June 4. They don't even know yet where to set the cap on commercial licenses. (A total of 3,000 was announced but withdrawn for further study.)

If DNR doesn't have a cogent presentation for the General Assembly before the 1994 session begins, the crab-conservation plan could lose much if its effectiveness.

DNR can proceed without legislative approval on parts of the plan, such as some restrictions on gear. But such moves are meaninglesswithout a limit on the number of crabbers, and licensing changes must go before the legislature.

'Ruin to all'

Though controversial and complicated, limited entry is an idea whose time has come.

"Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all," wrote biologist Garrett Hardin 25 years ago in his classic essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons," about the public pasture that in old England was open to grazing by all the town's herdsmen.

Hardin was worried about an overpopulated planet, but his parable of the commons applies to the bay as well.

Total access may work until population and demands for a higher standard of living pressure herdsmen to keep more cattle on the commons. Each herdsman rationally decides it is in his interest to put more cows there, because he gets most of the gain from selling the cow, while any loss from overgrazing is shared.

Therein lies Hardin's tragedy: Each man is "locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit -- in a world that is limited."

So it is in the free-ranging commons of the bay waterman, wherecrabbing harder and harder is to each one's advantage, while the risk of overfishing the commons is everyone's problem -- and no one's.

But in a limited-entry system, watermen would have an economic stake in conservation, with the value of a license tied directly to the long-term health of crabs and other fisheries. And state managers would have more control over the resource.

Virginia half

The present commons, of course, includes the Virginia half of the bay. The blue crab knows no state line, nor do crabbers; Maryland watermen in recent years have won court decisions allowing them to crab in both states.

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