A tasty morsel will test man's resolve

ON THE BAY

February 12, 1994|By TOM HORTON

How we love the Chesapeake blue crab: love it steamed, stewed and Norfolked; love it hard and soft, and even "buckramy," a stage between soft and hard, when it is particularly sweet.

And how we love to catch the crab:

With pots, scrapes, dredges, rings, traps, dip nets, trotlines and chicken necks, to name but a few methods.

Catch it swimming on the surface, hiding in the sea grass, finning through the black depths of the shipping channels and buried in the mud.

Catch it as it migrates, as it spawns, as it mates and while it hibernates; in every season and every one of the approximately 3 million acres of the bay and its tidal tributaries.

Just as pursuit of the oyster, shad, rockfish and diamondback terrapin once set the bay milieu, so, almost alone, does the crab today.

Not surprisingly, there are signs that these beautiful swimmers, while still abundant, are being overfished.

The average daily catch per commercial crabber in Maryland has declined for six years now, even though the crabbing effort -- both recreational and commercial -- is up substantially.

The challenge has been well-described by Eugene Cronin, retired director of bay research for Maryland, and one who

studied crabs with equal zest in institutes of higher learning and Smith Island crab skiffs: "The crab is our last great fishery. . . . 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, it is difficult to imagine real success for any species in the bay.

So far, watching Maryland and Virginia try to protect the crab has been both encouraging and exasperating -- more the latter than the former.

The proposed measures

More than four years after the states agreed to produce management plans, Maryland natural resources officials have finally settled on proposed crab conservation measures.

In concept they are laudable. They aim to take modest steps BEFORE the blue crab gets into real trouble, requiring the drastic actions we had to take with shad and rockfish.

TH The new regulations being finalized now also eliminate -- rightly, I

think -- thousands of "noncommercial" crab licenses, whose holders could essentially catch crabs in their spare time in commercial quantities.

This has caused some hue and cry among some sports fishermen and outdoors writers about taking away the little person's right to crab.

But the regulations, while they may need some fine-tuning, hardly hurt the true recreational crabber, actually doubling the number of traps and trotlines they can use.

The regulations limit everybody but commercial watermen to a bushel a day, and two bushels total per boat.

That is enough for personal consumption, and people who say they routinely need more are probably selling them.

With a rapidly growing population using the bay for recreation, and a state goal of preserving commercial watermen's livelihoods and cultures, we don't have the luxury anymore of allowing weekend crabbers to harvest the bay for profit.

If the little person has a gripe, it is with the way the state has fumbled its avowed goal of capping the efforts of commercial crabbers, who catch perhaps two-thirds of the bay's harvest.

The centerpiece of the proposed regulations is a limit of 300 crab pots per waterman. Currently there is no limit on pots, which is the way about 70 percent of all crabs are taken commercially.

First, this is felt by Natural Resources Police to be virtually unenforceable, since watermen spread their pots far and wide, and constantly change their location.

In fact, Maryland has had for some time a 150-pot limit in its seaside bays, an area much smaller and more manageable than the Chesapeake; and it has proven to be both routinely violated and hard to enforce.

Second, the regulations actually allow up to 900 pots per boat, since they allow a boat to carry up to three people, each authorized for 300 pots. Few boats fish that many pots now, and most fish far less, so there is potential for tremendous expansion of fishing pressure.

To offset that, the Department of Natural Resources has thrown the ball in the lap of the legislature in the form of Senate Bill 494.

This bill would limit the total number of licenses that could be held to crab the bay commercially.

This idea of "limited entry" is one whose time has come, and the legislature should endorse the concept.

But the bill's particulars leave blank where the line should be drawn on the number of licenses. It would delay a decision until 1996.

Surge in applicants likely

In the meantime, there is likely to be a run on applying for crab licenses in the months before the bill can take effect; and there are already thousands of crab licenses out there in the hands of inactive crabbers, plus a two-year waiting list of people who have already applied.

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