Crab season to end debate intensifies

State officials say restrictions helped, will seek limits in '96

Harvest tally is awaited

Watermen bitter as estimates suggest unusually low haul

November 18, 1995|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Maryland's shortened crabbing season limps to a close today, with disgruntled watermen in doubt about whether their sacrifices will pay off by restoring the abundance of Chesapeake Bay's most treasured seafood.

State natural resources officials say they believe emergency limits imposed in September have succeeded in reducing harvest pressure on the blue crab, which yields $187 million in annual income for the Maryland and Virginia seafood industries.

The restrictions on commercial and sport crabbers curtailed the hours and days they could work and brought the season to an end nearly six weeks early.

Given continuing worries about the the bay's stock of spawning female crabs, however, officials say they plan to seek limits again next year. That seems sure to prompt intense debate this winter in Annapolis and in Richmond over the need for conservation measures and their fairness.

A harvest tally won't be available for several weeks, but Maryland officials say 31 million pounds of crabs were reported caught through September. That suggests this year's harvest was well below the long-term annual average of 46 million pounds.

But watermen and seafood dealers say that after a so-so summer, crabbing picked up in the fall, just as the catch restrictions took effect. The state "short-circuited the season," said Andrew Tolley, a crab-meat processor from Dorchester County. "Had it run its course, it might have turned out to be a pretty good year."

Watermen have complained bitterly all fall that the catch restrictions were unnecessarily harsh and unfair, because there was no comparable action in Virginia, where crabs in Maryland's part of the bay migrate to spend the winter and spawn the next spring.

"You cut off the season at its most productive," Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, told state natural resources officials at a meeting in Annapolis Thursday night.

Worried about surveys indicating a decline in the bay's crab population, especially of mature females, Maryland officials in mid-September reduced commercial crabbing from 14 hours a day all week to six eight-hour days per week. Recreational crabbing, normally allowed all week, was curtailed to three days -- Friday through Sunday.

Many females are caught in the fall as they migrate down the bay, and the restrictions seem to have accomplished the goal of reducing the fall catch by 20 percent, state officials said.

The season, which had been scheduled to end Wednesday, was extended until 2 p.m. today to take account of storms and high winds over the past week.

The state also gave watermen an extra three days after the season to collect any pots left in the water. But watermen, while grateful for the extension, complain that the deadline for removing their crabbing gear is unrealistic and unnecessary.

A single boat, with a skipper and two helpers, is allowed to have up to 900 pots in the water at once, and watermen say that the recent storms have scattered and even submerged some pots. They complain that it may take them weeks to recover their gear, and that it is unfair to face fines of up to $180 per pot if caught hauling lost ones aboard after Tuesday.

Citations issued

In the past six weeks, Natural Resources police issued 22 warnings for crabbing on off days, and 44 warnings and six citations for crabbing before or after the daily time limits, said a department spokesman. The citations carried $120 fines.

Watermen complained that the eight-hour time limits and the one-day closure hurt some crabbers more than others because they could not adjust to weather and tides.

Watermen who catch crabs in pots saw their harvest drop by 30 percent, Mr. Tolley said, while those who use "trotlines," or long lines with bait attached at intervals, suffered a 40 percent drop in the final six weeks of the season.

The average trotliner lost about $3,500 in income, Mr. Tolley estimated, adding, "And that's a lot to lose for someone who didn't have a good summer."

W. P. "Pete" Jensen, DNR's fisheries director, said state officials are beginning to discuss similar but probably less severe restrictions for 1996. Regulations will be proposed early next year, in time to take effect by the season's scheduled start April ++ 1.

He said state officials may try for a third time to win General Assembly approval to license recreational crabbers.

Issue of fairness

Watermen attending a meeting of DNR's Tidal Fisheries Advisory Commission on Thursday night were reluctant to suggest any new restrictions on crabbing for next year. Most said they did not dispute the need for conservation but wanted everyone to sacrifice equally, including recreational crabbers, all types of commercial crabbers and especially those in Virginia.

Watermen said the bay seems to be teeming with tiny, juvenile crabs, an indication the stock is rebounding on its own. If so, DNR officials said, the increase in young crabs should show up in the next winter and spring surveys.

In Virginia, which is experiencing the worst crab harvest in 36 years, the Marine Resources Commission is scheduled Nov. 28 to review recommendations for any new curbs that state might put on crabbing, said commission spokesman Wilford Kale.

Virginia has set aside crab sanctuaries in the lower bay and imposed other limits, but it allows watermen to catch crabs in winter and to keep egg-bearing females.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation yesterday called on Virginia Gov. George F. Allen to endorse short-term conservation measures.

The Annapolis-based environmental group also urged Virginia to join with Maryland in forging a bi-state plan.

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