Under pressure from established seafood dealers to crack down on unlicensed crab pickers on Smith Island, Maryland Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini is backing away from his agreement to give the isolated Chesapeake Bay watermen's community more time to comply with strict state food-handling regulations.
Mr. Sabatini said yesterday that he probably would deny a group of watermen's wives and widows in Tylerton permission to keep selling crab meat this spring and summer while they work on plans to set up a crab-picking cooperative that can meet state health requirements.
A final decision will be made by the end of the week, he said.
The health secretary's remarks drew an angry response from an Eastern Shore state senator and a suggestion from one of the women that the state official needs to visit the Somerset County island to understand their plight.
"If he shuts those ladies down, that's showing extreme insensitivity to their economic plight," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Republican representing the Lower Shore. "It's a disaster."
"It's put me to the point of panic and tears," said Janice Marshall, a waterman's wife who has been spearheading efforts to set up BTC a crab-picking cooperative in Tylerton, the most remote of the three villages on Smith Island.
Mr. Sabatini had agreed March 30 to give the self-employed women 90 days to comply with the state's rules, which require that food for sale be prepared on stainless steel tables using expensive commercial steaming and refrigeration equipment.
But he said yesterday that an extension is unlikely because the islanders would be unable to complete their plan to build a state-licensed processing plant in that time.
Officials warned islanders in late 1992 to stop picking crabs for sale in their kitchens or backyard sheds, a practice the state considers a food-poisoning hazard.
Since then, Mr. Sabatini said, two crab-picking operations on the island have managed to comply with state requirements. But most of the 22 unlicensed pickers known to the state have done nothing.
"I see little evidence of any movement at all on any of this over the last year, other than the two individuals that have gotten a license and this group of people in Tylerton," Mr. Sabatini said.
Meanwhile, the health secretary said that licensed seafood processors have complained that it is unsafe and unfair competition for the state to allow the islanders to continue selling crab meat that is not prepared according to state guidelines.
Mr. Stoltzfus said some Smith Islanders seem unwilling to legalize their illicit cottage industry, but that the Tylerton women have been stymied by a conflict among state and local agencies over disposal of the crab shells and waste generated by their operation.
The state will no longer permit them to dump it in the water, and the county will not allow them to use the state-run incinerator on the island that disposes of all other refuse, including that from the already licensed crab-picking plant.