Is crab crunch cause for alarm?


June 20, 1993|By GARY DIAMOND

Maryland's Secretary of Natural Resources Dr. Torrey C. Brown says recreational crabbing is the state's most popular participant sport.

He said more than 500,000 Maryland residents caught and consumed 11 million pounds of crabs during 1990. He also said commercial crab landings averaged more than 47 million pounds from 1982 to 1991, but last year's commercial catch was off by more than 30 percent.

In Harford County's portion of Chesapeake Bay, recreational crabbers traditionally set large numbers of collapsible traps and trot lines near the mouths of Gunpowder and Bush Rivers, locations where competition for the best sites is keen during the summer months.

Although it's illegal to set commercial crab pots inside most rivers, the number of pots just outside the tributaries boggles the mind. Consequently, confrontations between commercial and recreational crabbers frequently erupt, especially during times when crabs are somewhat scarce.

Although exact figures are not available, it's estimated that more than 2,000,000 crab pots are in Maryland's portion of Chesapeake Bay while nearly 1.5 million are actively used in Virginia waters. Simple arithmetic clearly shows us why Maryland's blue crab population is in trouble and how these problems began.

If each of the crab pots in Maryland's portion of Chesapeake Bay caught just five crabs daily for 180 days, May through October, the total catch would average 1.8 billion crabs annually. If only half the crabs were legal size, above the 5-inch minimum, the figure is still staggering.

According to DNR statistics, the state's annual commercial crab harvest is worth approximately $21 million. But when crabs become scarce, the price per pound or bushel, increases dramatically, causing crabbers to increase their harvest effort to capitalize on the profits.

A quick check with several Harford County crab houses revealed prices for large crabs ranging from $30 to $45 per dozen and as high as $95 per bushel.

"We run specials and give discounts for larger quantities, but the zTC people in this area still want the largest crabs," said Al Auckland, owner of Kent Island Seafood in Benson.

"I live on Kent Island and we're seeing more and more people catching crabs, and I agree something has to be done to save what's left, but everyone who catches them should be cut back -- not just one group."

Auckland said commercial crabbers in the mid- and lower bay are using twice as many crab pots as they did five years ago to catch the same number of crabs.

"The catch of crabs for the amount of effort is going down," said Brown. "You have to crab longer, you need more pots, longer trot lines and you have to work harder to catch the same amount of crabs you caught just a few years ago."

Brown said increasing commercial and recreational pressure on crabs combined with decreases in catch indicate that there's a possibility that action must be taken to insure crabs for future generations.

Brown said, "We have a Crab Action Plan that will cap the pressure to catch crabs at today's level. It's different than saying here's all the crabs you can keep, the plan simply states we're not going to put any additional pressure on crabs."

Brown said he believes last year's decrease in crab harvest was like a naturally occurring phenomena with the species and the population will recover on its own.

Unfortunately, the same words were spoken in 1980 by Brown's predecessor James Coulter when he was warned by recreational anglers that striped bass populations were on the verge of collapse, and everyone is keenly aware of what happened to rockfish.

Brown said his proposals, if approved and implemented before the 1994 crabbing season, will prevent a major decline in their population index.

He said everyone will have to bear the burden and by next

summer the entire program will be operational.

Recreational Crabbing Proposals:

1. Require all individuals 16 years of age and older to purchase a Chesapeake Bay Fishing License or order to catch crabs, regardless of the method used.

2. Limit the number of collapsible crab traps and rings to not more than five for licensed non-commercial crabbers. Under current regulations, these individuals can set up to 50 traps or rings, but can not sell their catch.

3. Limit non-commercial trotline crabbers to a maximum line length of 500 feet.

4. Limit recreational crabbing time on the main portion of Chesapeake Bay to the hours of sunrise to 5 p.m. and sunrise to sunset in tributaries.

5. Increase the distance between trotlines from 50 to 150 feet.

6. Limit recreational crab catch to one bushel per person and two bushels per boat.

7. Eliminate the non-commercial crabber license and institute a recreational crabber license.

Public hearings on these proposals likely will be conducted this winter, prior to the 1994 session of Maryland's General Assembly.

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