The unlicensed crab pickers on Smith Island have won a three-month reprieve from a state crackdown on their illicit cottage industry, which they feared would require them to leave the traditional Chesapeake Bay watermen's community.
At the request of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, state Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini agreed yesterday to give a group of women on the marshy island in the lower bay another 90 days to comply with strict, costly rules for commercial food preparation.
The state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene began issuing letters last week warning about two dozen watermen's wives and widows on the island to stop picking crabs for sale in their backyard sheds, which the state considers a food-poisoning hazard.
Although there have been no documented health problems traced to Smith Island crab meat, state officials say the islanders must follow the same laws that apply to mainland seafood processors.
Janice Marshall, a waterman's wife, said she had been trying without success to get approval from the state and Somerset County to build a crab-picking plant in the island village of Tylerton. The facility, projected to cost $80,000, would be run by a cooperative that now has about five members.
She appealed to state Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the Lower Shore Republican, who pleaded with the governor late Tuesday to give the women more time to work things out.
"I said I'll see what we can do, but that is as far as we can go," Mr. Schaefer said yesterday.
"It is some relief, and it does give us a little extra time," Mrs. Marshall said yesterday.
She said one of the biggest obstacles is the dispute over disposal of crab waste. The women now dump crab shells in the water, but the state Department of the Environment insists that the waste be disposed of by composting, landfilling or incineration.