Plan to limit crabbing gains steam

March 06, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

After more than a year of debate and tinkering, the Schaefer administration's plan to limit crabbing in Maryland seems to be sailing through the General Assembly.

Meanwhile, evidence is emerging that harvest pressure has reached record levels on the Chesapeake Bay's last healthy fishery.

At a Senate hearing Friday, watermen, sport fishermen, charter boat captains and environmentalists agreed on the need to "draw the line" on the growing number of people pursuing the blue crab.

Though not without reservations, group spokesmen told the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee that they support two administration bills that would overhaul the state's system of licensing crabbers and commercial fishermen.

One bill would require a fishing license for the first time for anyone who wants to crab for sport or personal consumption in Maryland, while the other would require the Department of Natural Resources to place caps by 1996 on the number of people who may harvest crabs, fish and shellfish for sale -- also a first.

"Some day we have to draw the line, whether it's this year or [in] two or three years," said Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

The legislation is part of a two-pronged effort to limit crabbing. The Department of Natural Resources also has proposed

regulations, to take effect by April 1, that would restrict crabbing hours and equipment.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer unveiled his administration's "crab action plan" last summer, a year after Maryland and Virginia recorded one of the poorest crab harvests since the 1950s. The two states' combined catch fell 40 percent, from 91 million pounds in 1991 to 54 million pounds in 1992.

The crab harvest last year rebounded. Though Virginia's final catch figures have not been tallied, Maryland's commercial harvest hit a high of 57 million pounds, state officials say.

Although the bay's crab stocks seem to be "basically healthy," there are signs that fishing pressure is approaching dangerous levels, said Paul Massicot, Tidewater Administration director for the Department of Natural Resources.

New research by Maryland and Virginia scientists suggests that crabbers in both states are harvesting an increasing share of the bay's available crab population, he said.

Using winter surveys of crabs slumbering in the bay's bottom, researchers from the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory estimate that nearly half of all crabs of legally harvestable size were removed from the bay by commercial and recreational crabbers during 1992, according to article in Marine Notes, a Maryland Sea Grant College newsletter.

Eastern Shore lawmakers acknowledged the need to set limits but also expressed fear that the administration's proposed rule to limit commercial crabbers to 300 crab pots each and 900 per boat could hurt the livelihood of the state's watermen.

Warning that the bill contained a few loopholes that may undermine its conservation aims, William Goldsborough, fisheries expert for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, urged legislators to tighten the crab pot allowance to prevent crabbers who now use fewer than 900 pots from expanding the amount of gear they use.

Fishermen complained that some of the proposed fees for commercial crab licenses are exorbitant. State officials pledged to tinker with the charges, but defended the proposal to require recreational crabbers to buy a fishing license for $7 for the year or $5 for four days.

PROPOSED RESTRICTIONS ON CRABBING

Here are the highlights of the state's conservation plan. Some provisions require action by the General Assembly.

Licensing (changes require legislative approval)

* Cap commercial licenses. (No limit now; present number is about 9,000, with 3,300 active full-time crabbers.)

* Eliminate so-called noncommercial licenses. (About 3,000 now; some holders sell their catch, making them commercial fishermen in disguise, officials say.)

* Allow commercial crabbers to add up to two crew members to their licenses. (None now.)

* Require $7 permit for recreational crabbers 16 and older. (None required now.)

Commercial crabbers

* Limit of 300 crab pots per license holder and 900 per boat, since crew members also would be allotted pots. (No limit now on pots.)

* Time restriction of 3 a.m. to 5 p.m. (None now.)

* Pots must have opening to allow small crabs to escape. (Not required now.)

* 100 feet between trotlines. (50 feet now.)

Other crabbers

* Limit recreational catch to one bushel per person per day, two bushels per boat per day. (Some individuals allowed two bushels now.)

* 1,000-foot limit -- 2,000 feet per boat -- on trotlines. (Some crabbers have no limits now.)

* Limit of 10 traps and/or rings, 25 per boat. (Individual limit is now five for recreational crabbers and 50 for some others.)

* Time restriction of sunrise to 5 p.m. in the bay and sunrise to sunset in the tributaries. (No restriction now.)

* Limit of two pots set from private property. (Some counties now allow four pots.)

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