Crabbers set their lines for changes

OUTDOORS

March 20, 1994|By GARY DIAMOND

During the next few weeks, Harford County's recreational fishermen and crabbers will spend much of their leisure time preparing for the upcoming seasons. In April, they'll be fishing for white perch in the Susquehanna River, but when May arrives, a substantial number of people will be searching the upper bay for crabs.

Seventy-five-year-old Forest Hill resident John Byer has been crabbing recreationally for more than a half century.

"I've never sold a crab in my life, but in order to run my 50 collapsible traps, I had to buy a commercial license." said Byer. "I usually don't catch more than a bushel of crabs and there are times when we come home with only a half bushel."

Byer says he's concerned about proposed new crabbing regulations now before Maryland's legislators, laws Governor William Donald Schaefer said are similar to those recently enacted in Virginia.

Two weeks ago, Schaefer sent a letter to Virginia Governor George Allen, commending that state on recent actions taken to preserve blue crab populations. Schaefer said regulations Virginia has enacted during the past year are similar to proposals currently before Maryland's General Assembly.

"It is important that Virginia and Maryland continue to work together on issues involving Chesapeake Bay," said Schaefer. "If we have learned anything from the striped bass crisis in the 1980s, it was the importance of taking early and decisive action to prevent a crisis."

Actions recently taken by Virginia include: requiring a license for recreational crabbing, limiting the amount of gear for recreational crabbers, capping the number of dredge licenses, reducing daily harvest limits in the winter crab dredge fishery and requiring cull rings in crab pots.

Two pieces of legislation are now before Maryland's General Assembly, both of which will affect recreational and commercial crabbers equally. If approved by state legislators, Maryland recreational crabbers will be required to purchase a Chesapeake Bay Fishing License. Previously, recreational crabbers were not required to be licensed if they used five or less collapsible crab traps, or five ring nets or up to 500 feet of trotline.

In Virginia, the number of commercial crab dredging licenses has been frozen to the 1993-1994 level and eventually will be reduced to 225, a reduction of approximately 25 percent. Additionally, daily catch quotas have been reduced by 25 percent to approximately 60 bushels during their four-month crab dredging season.

In Maryland, a cap will be placed on the number of commercial crabbing licenses. However, the total number has not been established. The way the legislation is worded, the number of crab licenses will be determined by: recommendations from at least two citizen advisory groups, both of which are dominated by commercial interests; the historic number of licenses over a certain time period; historic catch levels; current harvest level; and fisheries management plans.

The legislation would limit the number of crab pots to 300 per license holder with a maximum of 900 pots per boat. However, a legal loop hole also was included in the proposal.

For the next two years, licensed commercial crabbers will be limited to 300 pots, but can hire two mates, who for $50 each, can obtain a mate's license. The mate's license allows him to run 300 pots apiece as long as he is working with a TFL (Total Fishing License) licensed crabber. Mate licenses, which originally were to expire after two years, will be renewable for a $30 fee. The total number of commercial licenses will be capped this August.

A 2 5/16-inch cull ring will be required in all crab pots with a wire mesh size measuring less than two inches but greater than 1 1/2 inches. This would permit undersized crabs to escape. However, the regulation would not apply to peeler pots.

Approximately 30 percent of Virginia's crabbers already have installed cull rings, claiming they saved a lot of work during the culling process. (The minimum legal size for hard crabs is five inches.)

However, a couple crabbers admitted when times were tough, undersized crabs were mixed with sooks (females) and sold to picking houses at night. Cull rings effectively would eliminate this illegal practice.

Cull rings, unfortunately, are not infallible. A few unscrupulous individuals claimed they could defeat the ring by merely jamming in a live, five-inch crab, which would block the opening.

Another talked of packing the hole with a large, compact glob of sea weed, effectively rendering it inoperable. People making these statements, however, were not commercial crabbers, but instead, claimed to be owners of waterfront property who are allowed to set two crab pots in waters adjacent to their land. Many commercial watermen thought the rings would be beneficial.

Currently, there are no time restrictions for crabbing. Under the proposed legislation, recreational crabbers would be restricted to the hours of 5:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the open bay and 5:30 a.m. to sunset in the tributaries. Recreational crabbing from docks, piers, bulkheads and shore is permitted round the clock.

Commercial trotline operators would be allowed to crab from 3 a.m. until 5 p.m., and commercial crab potters would be allowed to operate between 4:30 a.m. and 5 p.m.

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