Steamed about crab restrictions Smoldering resentment: Smith Island fire highlights rancor over crabbing limits.

October 29, 1995

THE FIRE that destroyed the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's education center on Smith Island reflects a smoldering distrust within the natural resources community over emergency crabbing restrictions imposed by the state last month.

While culprits in the arson have yet to be named, it's no secret that tensions have flared between watermen who feel their livelihood is threatened by new limits on hours and working days, and the environmental organization, which doggedly pushed for those strictures.

The episode helps to illustrate what can happen when a do-good organization righteously presses its policy on the state without consulting those most affected.

It is a fault now recognized by the foundation, which has had a comfortable presence on Smith Island for 17 years. Too much focus on aquatic biology and statistical modeling, and not enough talking with the people who earn their living from crabs, is the conclusion.

The conservation group enjoys a close relationship with the new Maryland governor that it lacked in previous administrations, and still lacks in other states in the watershed. That influence helped to rush the initial restrictions on fall crabbing by the state Department of Natural Resources. After backlash from watermen and the seafood industry, those regulations were modified but still rankled veteran crabbers, who dispute the view that the crab population is in jeopardy. In fact, state officials had repeatedly dismissed proposals for new limits this year as unjustified, while the foundation lobbied for immediate protection of females.

Arson and violence are unacceptable reactions, in any case. We can only hope that this thoughtless act, in which no one was injured, will jar a new urgency for cooperation among the many more reasonable factions who cherish the Chesapeake.

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