Culling Chesapeake Crab Catches

June 13, 1993

Marylanders have always kept a close eye on the health o King Crab, but usually only after he has been properly steamed and seasoned.

Market prices and available sizes at restaurants, seafood markets and carryout shops have been the primary public measures of change to the prodigious populations of these beautiful swimmers of the Chesapeake.

Some years the delectable crustaceans are huge and abundant, other times they're scarce and small and costly. But that has always been the way with the cycle of nature.

For several years now, however, the commercial harvest of Maryland blue crabs has been dropping, the result of a man-made pressure that needs to be addressed by man-made solutions. "More people are pursuing crabs, using more gear, working longer hours," warns Torrey Brown, the state natural resources secretary.

The state this month proposed tighter restrictions on crabbers, and not just on commercial watermen. Maryland wants to limit recreational shellfishermen to reasonable catches and equipment, and to control them through licenses.

More important, the new rules would crack down on the semi-pros, who increasingly sell their unmeasured catches commercially. The so-called "noncommercial" license now held by 13,500 persons would be eliminated. And the number of commercial licenses would be limited to the existing number of about 3,000, presumably ensuring that currently working watermen could continue to pursue their occupation.

It has been years since Maryland-registered watermen hit the 50 million pounds mark long considered the benchmark of a thriving, self-sustained crab fishery in the bay. Last year, the commercial catch dipped to 30 million pounds, along with perhaps 12 million pounds landed by supposedly recreational crabbers.

This is no knee-jerk call for a moratorium and new rules. The blue crab is not about to join the rockfish and American shad as fragile survivor. Clear licensing will allow natural resources authorities to judge more accurately the true crab harvests, and how the catch levels affect the re-populating stock remaining in the bay. Requiring cull rings on crab traps to allow small-fry to escape is a prudent, overdue measure.

The major thrust of the provisions would not go into effect until at least next year, after the General Assembly has considered the changes. But the state could limit fishing hours this summer.

Overfishing, often senseless and unproductive, remains a major threat to the natural bounty of the Chesapeake Bay and tributaries. Reasonable controls on crab harvests should be supported by crustacean catchers and connoisseurs alike.

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