They surely deserved some of it; but in retrospect, scientists now believe that probably more than half the rockfish catches were relatively small ones being made, mostly undocumented, by millions of sportfishermen (unlike crabs, rockfish migrate up and down the coast, so sportfishing's impact was also occurring outside the Chesapeake).
Cluny Stagg, a scientist with the state who is familiar with all three recreational crabbing surveys, thinks the 41 million pounds attributed to chicken neckers in the 1983 report may have been an overstatement, caused by overestimating the number of trips crabbers made.
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New survey endangered
But a review of the 1990 study, which put recreational crabbing's impact at 11.5 million pounds, found significant statistical flaws, he said.
Any resolution will likely await a new and more thorough survey, which probably will be done in 1996 at the earliest, state officials say. Federal money of $172,000 to do it is currently endangered by congressional budget cuts.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources last year proposed a first-ever license for recreational crabbers, hoping that would lead to a better estimate of how many are out there and what they are catching; but the legislature vetoed it, led by Eastern Shore delegates even though their watermen constituents have howled loudest about the need to regulate sport crabbing more.
Watermen take it as an article of faith that significant numbers of recreational crabbers actually sell their catch and take more than the limit. Such illegal sales "are a large problem," says Larry Simns, head of the Maryland Watermen's Association.
But proof is hard to come by. Maryland's Natural Resources Police, whose patrol forces have been outstripped by the explosion in crabbing -- recreational and commercial -- in recent years, had issued no tickets for violations of such illegal sales by midsummer. Recently, an intrepid reporter for the Capital newspaper in Annapolis tried to "fence" a borrowed bushel of crabs around Kent Island, but was refused each time for not having a commercial license.
In the meantime, there seems little doubt that the blue crab, from Norfolk to Havre de Grace, is being fished to its limits, and maybe beyond. Scientists and managers do not base that conclusion so much on this summer, which appears to be a below-average one for crabs so far, but rather on the accumulation of several years of trends in surveys that are not dependent on how many crabs watermen are catching in any given year.
These show that an astonishing 80 to 90 percent of the bay's male crabs are being caught every year; also, that the average size and weight of males has declined steadily during the last 30 years. (Mencken spoke of crabs from the Patapsco "eight inches in length along the shell" as routine. Such a catch from the harbor would warrant a picture in The Sun today.)
Another long-term study shows the pounds of crabs per crab pot has fallen dramatically, from around 40 pounds to 20 to 25 pounds since 1984 (catches have remained high, but probably because more pots are being used).
More than ever, watermen are targeting "sooks," the mature females, most of them impregnated, that swim south in the late summer and fall to Virginia to spawn the next summer. In the last couple of years, sooks have risen from 25 percent of the Maryland commercial hard-crab catch to 40 per cent.
Other surveys of crab abundance in both Maryland and Virginia have shown a sharp drop-off during the last several years, both in total crabs and in female crabs.
It seems the debate is shifting from whether more conservation of the crab is needed to whether it should be commercial or recreational crabbers whose catches are limited.
There is no easy choice. Cut out Sunday crabbing, many commercial men say; but that is a huge part of recreational crabbers' time on the water. Don't catch females, some recreational crabbers say; but that is a vital part of watermen's livelihoods in Maryland and even more so in Virginia.
Getting a better handle on recreational catches is obviously a high priority, though one that currently seems to be stalled. None of several crabbers interviewed at Schnaitman's said they would mind being licensed, if that would help.
The last word, for now, should go to Dr. L. Eugene Cronin, retired director of Chesapeake Bay research for the University of Maryland, and a man who has studied the blue crab on every level from Ph.D. to the skiffs of watermen:
"The crab is the Chesapeake's last great fishery. It spends its entire life in the bay; it ranges the entire bay; it is of exceptional value, and every aspect of harvesting it is susceptible to our management. If we fall short of good management for this species, it is difficult to imagine real success for any species."