Crab pickers warned

March 30, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

Maryland is lowering the boom on Smith Island's unlicensed crab pickers, warning watermen's wives and widows of stiff fines if they continue their decades-old tradition of selling crab meat in violation of state health laws.

In letters mailed last week, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene informed 22 residents of this isolated, marshy island in the lower Chesapeake Bay that after tomorrow they may no longer pick crab meat for sale to the public unless they comply with the state's strict -- and costly -- food processing guidelines.

But a lower Eastern Shore legislator says Smith Island residents have had difficulty negotiating the red tape and financial hurdles on the road to compliance.

"It's a real disaster right now," said Republican Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus. "We're working with people who have done this for generations. You can't just turn a ship around overnight."

The state warned island residents more than a year ago that they would have to stop picking crabs in backyard sheds and buy the stainless steel tables, expensive steamers and operating licenses required by state food-handling laws. That warning came after state health inspectors seized 350 pounds of unlicensed crab meat shipped to Crisfield by ferry from the island.

So far, only one crab-picking operation has been approved on the island. While a few more are close to being licensed, state health officials said yesterday, they would grant no more extensions.

"They've already had in excess of a year to pull it together," said Dr. Diane L. Matuszak, deputy director of community health surveillance. Though there have been no documented cases of food poisoning from Smith Island crab meat, she said, the state's requirements are meant to ensure that it all seafood sold in Maryland is free from disease-carrying bacteria and other pathogens.

But at least one resident, Janice Marshall, says she and a handful of other women have had a hard time trying to "go legal" because of a dispute with the state and Somerset County over what to do with the shells and other crab waste produced by their cottage industry.

"I'm just one woman against the state," said Mrs. Marshall, who lives on Tylerton, the most remote of three villages on Smith Island. "I certainly don't know what else to do. I'm to the point of panicking. We need the money to survive."

With help from experts at Salisbury State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, the women have come up with a plan for building a crab-picking plant in Tylerton. They have at least one restaurant owner willing to put up $10,000 of the $80,000 needed, and they have applied for government grants or loans to finance the rest, said Senator Stoltzfus.

The women, who pick as much as 150 bushels of crabs daily in summer, now dump their waste in the water off the piers around the island. But the Maryland Department of the Environment has insisted the waste must be composted, dumped in a landfill or burned, just like other commercial food-processing waste.

Composting is impractical because the island lacks wood to mix with the waste, the women argue, and the nearest landfill is on the mainland, outside Crisfield. The island's trash, including waste from the sole licensed crab plant, is now burned in an incinerator in the island community of Ewell. But the county refuses to allow any more to be burned there, saying the facility lacks the capacity to handle waste generated by dozens crab pickers.

Nor will the county lease the land for the women's processing plant until they have a state-approved method of disposing of their waste, said Charles Massey, county administrator.

"Right now everyone's closed the door on these people," said Senator Stoltzfus.

Mrs. Marshall, who said she gets up by 3 a.m. each day in summer to pick crabs, says the money she and many other island women earn is essential because there are no other jobs available on the islands.

"It's not big money," she said, noting that the island's population of 400 is already dwindling. "It's hard work, but it's the only thing we can do, and we're willing to do it. . . . If somebody doesn't find some way for us, it's going to be a serious time on this island. Life as we know it won't exist."

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