The catch in crabbing restrictions Conflicting studies: State limits need careful, advance review each year.

February 11, 1996

THE DEBATE over restricting crab catches in Maryland and Virginia is fed by dueling studies and statistics, and by differing interpretations.

From one perspective, it is not the total catch that is significant, but the sampling and scientific projections of the crab population in the Chesapeake Bay. From another, the numbers caught reflect the health of the crab population, given natural fluctuations, and samplings lead to exaggerated guesswork.

There is truth in both views. Heavy catches may mean the hardshells are being over-harvested, or it may mean that they are in natural abundance. Lower catches may mean there are fewer crabs (or they are more elusive, or that watermen are not as numerous or working as long). Sophisticated sampling is unable to accurately forecast the future levels of these potentially prolific breeders. Are short-term norms more telling than longer term averages?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last month came out with its long-awaited, first-ever computerized "stock assessment" of the bay crab, collecting and massaging more than two decades of statistics.

NOAA's conclusions -- that there is no overfishing of crabs and that the crab population is in very good health -- were met with criticism from both sides: conservationists were skeptical of the results that did not support tighter restrictions; commercial crabbers were angry that the report was delayed until after Maryland imposed emergency limits last year.

The state Department of Natural Resources, which in September cut fishing time by 50 percent and ended the season six weeks early, is trying to cautiously navigate these treacherous waters. For the Maryland crabbing season that opens April 1, DNR proposes to cut the crabbing week by one day and to end the season a month early, eliminating the highly objectionable limit on crabbing hours in a day.

By addressing the issue early, while the legislature is in session, and consulting openly with crabbers and the seafood processors, the state agency hopes to avoid last year's sharp backlash. DNR admits to a conservative approach, despite the NOAA study, that may be warranted this year, given conflicting studies. But crabbing limits should be reviewed in advance of the season each year to make sure the blue crab stocks are not

overharvested and that limits are justifiable.

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