Seafood industry seeks lenience on small crabs Maryland crackdown called threat to business

August 30, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

A crackdown by Maryland Natural Resources Police on shipments of small crabs to Maryland from New Jersey and North Carolina has upset seafood processors, who complain the tough stance threatens their industry's survival amid a dismal Chesapeake Bay catch this summer.

Seafood processors, shippers and watermen met Wednesday night in Cambridge with state Department of Natural Resources officials to air their concerns over the enforcement dragnet, which has resulted in fines exceeding $65,000 for illegally imported crabs. Hundreds of bushels of undersized crabs have been seized -- in at least one case with the truck in which they were shipped.

"We've asked DNR to kind of ease up on these charges," said J. C. Tolley of Meredith and Meredith Seafood in Toddville in lower Dorchester County. "They're treating us like drug runners."

The crab harvest this summer has been one of the poorest in recent history, with the bay's supply of its most popular seafood depressed by a widespread die-off of mature crabs caused by last winter's severe weather. Though the waters are teeming with small juvenile crabs spawned late last summer, relatively few have grown large enough to be legally harvested -- 5 inches across.

The situation has led to more juvenile, undersized crabs being caught. Natural Resources Police also have cracked down on recreational and commercial crabbers, issuing almost 600 citations for undersized crabs this summer. The agency issued 352 citations last year.

Seafood dealers, unable to buy enough crabs locally to supply restaurants and markets, have imported crabs from other states for processing.

Authorities have seized 15 or 20 shipments to crab buyers and processors, according to Col. John Rhoads, superintendent of the Natural Resources Police.

Last month, a New Jersey man was fined $42,540 for transporting undersized crabs to Somerset County. Police seized 136 bushels and the truck in which they were being carried.

This month, Natural Resources Police levied more than $22,000 in fines against one Marylander and a North Carolina man for importing undersized crabs from North Carolina.

Tolley, the Dorchester crab processor, contended that the crackdown amounts to an economic blockade because Maryland's regulations are more stringent than those in some states. New Jersey's minimum catch size, for instance, is 4 3/4 inches. North Carolina allows more undersized crabs per bushel than Maryland does.

"Without Southern supplies, we can't exist," Tolley said.

But Rhoads, the Natural Resources Police chief, said the crab shipments his officers seized were illegal even under the looser regulations of the states from which they originated. And he said the crackdown on the processing industry was not meant to injure the state's seafood industry but to conserve the bay's crab population.

"If local crabbers, commercial watermen see all these small crabs coming into the state, they have to compete so they take small crabs," Rhoads said.

Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said the fines levied against truck drivers and seafood processors were "a little outrageous" but he said the blame rests on out-of-state suppliers, not on Maryland's crabbing regulations.

"We don't like being harassed, and we don't like getting tickets ++ either, but we don't want to change the laws," Simns said.

John W. Griffin, Maryland secretary of natural resources, said he plans to ask a committee of industry representatives for advice on how to cope with the problem, but he said the state had no intention of easing its catch limits or lifting fines.

"There's a growing body of opinion among Maryland citizens that they want these resources protected and not have a lot of young and undersized crabs harvested," Griffin said.

Pub Date: 8/30/96

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