Maryland reluctant to loosen crab limits Natural Resources plans to 'maintain stability'

January 21, 1996|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- Even if the number of crabs in the Chesapeake Bay is no lower than historic long-term averages -- as a new report suggests -- Maryland is in no rush to ease restrictions on crab fishermen, the state's chief fisheries official said here yesterday.

The state might not be in the position of having "to avert a crisis, but we're going to maintain stability," said Pete Jensen, director of fisheries for the Department of Natural Resources. "We're not going to wait for a crisis to jump up and bite us."

He said the state would not re-impose some of the emergency restrictions of 1995 -- when hours were curtailed and commercial fishermen were limited to six days of work a week -- but he expects the 1996 season to be shortened and other permanent restrictions to remain in effect.

Mr. Jensen appeared at a trade show here organized by the Maryland Watermen's Association. Several seminars at the show were devoted to the health of bay fisheries.

One study presented offered the first evidence that the state's oyster seeding program could, in fact, be encouraging the parasitic protozoan that has come close to wiping out oyster stocks.

Continued planting of infected young oysters in water of low salinity apparently allows more virulent and resistant strains of the parasite that causes the disease known as Dermo to develop, according to Kennedy Paynter, a biologist at the University of Maryland.

But the most heavily attended seminar was the one that heard details of a new study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on crab levels in the bay. That report, looking back over two decades, suggests the crab population is now about average over that period, even though it has declined sharply from a peak in 1990.

The study was presented by Elizabeth Gillelan, chief of NOAA's Chesapeake office, to a group of generally skeptical watermen. They blamed an earlier report by her office, which had suggested that the crab population was crashing, for the business they lost when last year's emergency restrictions were imposed.

Even if the new study contradicts the earlier one, they are wary of the good news.

"That just makes me mad. Why didn't they wait till they had their facts straight?" said Tim Poore of Bozman, near St. Michaels.

"They erred once. What's to say they won't look at it another way again, in May or July?" said Steve Lay of Havre de Grace. "They've already caused such a ruckus in the crab industry."

Others pointed out that they know from experience: There is a problem with the crab population.

"We're working a lot harder to catch a lot fewer crabs," said Lloyd Lewis, a 50-pot crabber in Southern Maryland. "Are we going to continue to let the Western Shore get fished out?"

NOAA findings that the number of young crabs in particular is increasing struck him as welcome news. "But right now we are really pushing hard on those crabs of marketable size," he said.

None of the watermen here yesterday argued with Mr. Jensen's assertion that Maryland cannot afford to ease crabbing restrictions.

"We don't want to be in the position of having to recover a stock -- it's painful, it's difficult," Mr. Jensen said. "Don't forget what happened with striped bass."

Levels of striped bass -- or rockfish -- fell so low before action was taken to protect them that fishing of the species had to be banned outright in 1985.

Virginia fisheries officials, who were here yesterday, said that state's Marine Resources Commission will meet Tuesday in Newport News to consider new restrictions on crabbing that would bring Virginia more in line with Maryland regulations.

The oyster study was done by Dr. Paynter under the auspices of the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a joint private and governmental organization to come up with new approaches to oyster production.

The state has been seeding spat -- young oysters just past the larval stage -- in low-salinity water in an attempt to beat the Dermo scourge, which originally required fairly high levels of salinity.

But Dr. Paynter said the Dermo protozoan appears to be adapting quickly to the fresher water.

Currently, he acknowledged, oysters living in the less salty parts the bay are growing to market size before the parasite can kill them, but he questioned how long this would continue.

"We're not at all convinced," said Mr. Jensen, whose department seeded 220,000 bushels of spat last year in its "repletion" program, most of it infected with the parasite.

"There's no doubt in my mind," countered Robert Pfeiffer, executive director of the Oyster Recovery Partnership, "that the repletion program is part of the problem."

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