Watermen blame fish for drop in crabs Bay is brimming with predators

August 23, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

BOZMAN -- Nobody had to tell Eastern Shore watermen that July was a bad month for catching crabs. But they offer at least a partial explanation for the decline: The Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries seem to be brimming with fish.

"We just are not going to have fishing this good and crabs all at the same time," said Phil Hambelton, who runs a seafood wholesaling company, P. T. Hambelton and Sons, in this Talbot County village. "There may be some other factors -- like an early spring -- but the crabs don't stand a chance out there with all these fish."

There are large numbers of Atlantic croaker, spot, trout and rockfish (striped bass) in the bay, watermen and Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials said.

"I wouldn't want to say that man isn't taking plenty of crabs, especially if we counted the recreational crabbers, but there are a lot of predators out there after crabs before we ever get a chance," said Larry Simns, a Rock Hall waterman who heads the Maryland Watermen's Association. "We see lots of young crabs, but they aren't making it through the shedding when they're vulnerable."

The Department of Natural Resources reported Friday the worst July crab harvest on record -- the commercial catch of blue crabs was about half the normal take. Scientists and environmental officials were withholding judgment on the cause of the decline or whether new restrictions might be needed.

But DNR officials acknowledged yesterday that predation by rockfish and croakers could play a role in the decline. And, they said, as watermen have relied more on crabs as a major income source in recent years, scientists are concerned that overfishing could also be a factor.

"There's certainly evidence that rockfish and croakers eat juvenile crabs, and that could have an impact on the overall population," said John Surrick, spokesman for DNR.

Crab experts from Maryland and Virginia, members of the Bi-State Crab Advisory Commission, are scheduled to meet next month to compare harvest and other data, Surrick said.

"We believe there could be a variety of factors at work, including overfishing of crabs," Surrick said. "At this stage, we view this with concern, not alarm. We need to sit down and take a look at all these possibilities."

Hambelton and his brother, Todd, have noticed that fewer local watermen are docking at their packing shed on Grace Creek.

"On average, I'd say we'd have anywhere from 50 to 70 crabbers coming in here," Hambelton said. "Lately, it's been more like 35 to 50."

The state's commercial crabbers brought in about 4.6 million pounds last month, compared to the 9 million pounds caught the same month a year ago. State environmental officials are concerned because about 20 percent of the state's total catch usually comes in July. The crabbing season lasts from April to November.

Increase in rockfish

Recent studies by state and federal regulators have shown a rise in the bay's rockfish population. Two years ago, state natural resources officials found the most juvenile striped bass in more than 40 years. Commercial catches have risen from 1.98 million pounds in 1995 to 4.3 million pounds last year. And the fish prey on crabs shedding their shells.

In St. Michaels, Alan Poore, a wholesale and retail seafood dealer for more than 30 years, says last month was the worst for crabs he can remember. He believes that with more efforts to preserve the bay and more restrictions to protect threatened species, industry productivity is cyclical.

"Thirty-five years ago, I had to go all the way to the Potomac to make a living oystering, and they certainly came back," said Poore. "Rockfish has been a protected species for years now and they've come back. I'm not blaming it all on rockfish, but there are a lot of them out there."

William Davis, who's sold crabs to Poore for years, went out yesterday to tend 200 crab pots. He returned with just three bushels.

Donald Bridger, who fishes the Miles River out of McDaniel, said though last year was one of his best, this summer is not.

"I've got 3,500 feet of trot line out there and I can't catch a full bushel a day," Bridger said.

With supply down, prices for consumers are up, said Poore, who is selling the highest-grade male crabs to Baltimore restaurants for $80 to $90 a bushel.

Starting to 'pick up'

With a bleak July behind them, watermen and seafood dealers say the catch has improved slightly this month.

Van Marshall, a crabber from Tangier Island, unloaded 15 bushels at the Crabs 'R' Us dock in Crisfield yesterday.

"Last month was just keeping the bills all paid," Marshall said. "Lately it's started to pick up."

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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