Crabbing proposal hits watermen at worst time

September 03, 1995|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Tom Horton contributed to this article.

Russell L. Spangler stopped to mop his brow as he trundled bushel baskets of crabs from his sunbaked pier on Shallow Creek to the shade of his backyard shed in Fort Howard in eastern Baltimore County.

A few feet away, customers were lining up, coolers and steamer pots in hand, to buy the catch he and his daughter had just unloaded from his boat, Miss Cookie.

For watermen like Mr. Spangler from Aberdeen to Tangier Sound, Gov. Parris N. Glendening's call for tighter restrictions on crabbing couldn't have come at a worse time. Crabs are in demand this Labor Day weekend, and for the first time all summer, plenty seem available to go around. Watermen complain the governor is overreacting.

"I think we need to do something," Mr. Spangler said, agreeing with the governor's warning that an apparent decline in female crabs threatens the bay's most important fishery.

But he and others say the governor went too far in proposing to ban crabbing two days a week starting Sept. 15 and to end the season 45 days early.

"Everybody's willing to give up some," said Mr. Spangler, who has been crabbing for 29 of his 57 years. However, he said, watermen are reluctant to accept the early season close, and "nobody feels it's warranted to lose two days of work."

Watermen are an independent lot. Those who work the upper bay are often at odds with their counterparts from Crisfield and Smith Island. The governor's action has sharpened some of those differences. Upper-bay watermen object to being idled Sundays, one of their best days for selling their catch to restaurants, while crabbers from Somerset and Dorchester counties favor Sundays off, because many don't work them anyway.

Despite their differences over details, watermen seem united in their dismay over the whole package of proposed restrictions, which would ban crabbing one day a week all next year and close the season even earlier, on Oct. 31.

"We're knocking people out of work here," said Daniel Beck, outspoken president of the Baltimore County Watermen's Association. "We ain't just saving females." One of the bay's biggest crabbers, he said he makes 25 percent of his income Sundays.

"It's going to hurt more than what people sitting behind a desk realize," said Don Pierce of Rock Hall as he checked his pots set in the mouth of the Sassafras River.

"These crabs move two to three miles in a day, and they go out of here in waves," Mr. Pierce said. "If you have a blowy day or a mechanical failure, it's going to really set you behind."

He predicted the restrictions would cost him 30 percent of his crabbing income.

"It's the same as if your boss told you I'm only going to pay you for three days a week and make you take 30 days of vacation without pay," said Larry W. Simns, Maryland Watermen's Association president.

Watermen complain the restrictions would prevent them from catching any crabs, not just sooks, or females, and say they wish the state had focused more on protecting the sooks. Some have urged daily catch limits on females; others even suggested an outright ban.

But John R. Griffin, the state's natural resources secretary, said the restrictions he recommended to the governor target mainly females, and they are more enforceable than much of what the watermen propose.

As for an outright ban on the harvest of females, he said, such drastic action is not warranted now because crabbers in the lower bay especially rely on catching females in late summer and fall.

Mr. Griffin said he was willing to consider any ideas for restrictions that might be more effective and less onerous, but he also said he sees reason for optimism in the complaints from watermen.

"They acknowledge there's a problem, and now we're debating how to deal with it, as opposed to saying there's not a problem," he said.

The harvest has been on and off all year, with crabs slow to show up in spring, more plentiful in June, then going into hiding during the heat wave of July.

Baywide, watermen caught 6 million pounds of crabs in July, about 25 percent below normal, the Department of Natural Resources said.

Only in the last few weeks, as the thermometer backed down slightly, have crab pots begun filling again.

"Crabbing's getting real good right now," Mr. Pierce said. "We're probably going to have 50 to 55 [bushels of] ones today, and probably 20 twos." "Ones" are the largest male crabs, and "twos" the smaller ones.

"It looks like we're going to have a tremendous female run," Mr. Pierce added. Of five dozen soft crabs he had collected Friday, four dozen were females.

It is the females that the proposed restrictions are designed to protect.

No precise estimates exist of how many females the bay has, but they lay 750,000 to 8 million eggs a year.

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