Crab pickers, state reach agreement

June 22, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

Smith Island's crab pickers have won a reprieve from a threatened state crackdown on their traditional but unlicensed cottage industry. Now all they need are some crabs to pick.

Nelson J. Sabatini, the state health secretary, announced yesterday that the state had signed a consent order with 17 women from Tylerton, the smallest of three villages on the Chesapeake Bay island that depend on crabbing and fishing for a livelihood.

The agreement, filed this week in Somerset County Circuit Court, allows the women -- watermen's wives and widows -- to continue picking crab meat at home, provided they build a processing plant by Oct. 15 that will comply with state rules.

"I'm very happy. . . . It's been a long haul," said Janice Marshall, president of the Smith Island Crabmeat Cooperative, formed by the women.

The state health department had been threatening to prosecute the women for picking and selling crab meat in violation of state requirements that food processed for sale be prepared on stainless steel tables and sanitized in costly commercial steamers.

Though no food poisoning has been traced to the crab meat from Smith Island, state officials insisted on enforcing the rules to protect consumers -- and to quiet complaints from competing, licensed seafood processors.

The state warned islanders more than a year ago but gave them until April 1 to obtain state food-processing licenses.

The Tylerton women asked for more time, saying their plan to build an $80,000 plant had been snagged by a lack of funds and a dispute with Somerset County over how to dispose of waste.

State officials refused the extension, but yesterday Mr. Sabatini said he agreed to a reprieve because the group has committed to a firm schedule for compliance.

Under the agreement, state inspectors may test the crab meat for safety at the women's expense.

"This is the best of all worlds," said Mr. Sabatini. "We're going to have compliance, [while] the people on the island are going to keep their livelihood, and do it right."

The women hope to have funding soon and to reach agreement with the county on waste disposal.

Meanwhile, there is a shortage of work: Weather conditions apparently have slowed the arrival around Smith Island of crabs large enough to process.

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