Crabbing for fun is about to get more complicated in Maryland.
Under regulations proposed by the state Department of Natural Resources, recreational crabbers will still be able to catch enough crabs for the dinner table -- up to a bushel a day -- without a license. But those who want to take a feast's worth of crabs, two to three bushels a day, will need a new $5 seasonal license.
The proposed rules, scheduled to go into effect April 1, will affect crabbers who tie crab pots to their piers or set trot lines and collapsible crab traps from a boat. They'll allow people who get licenses to set more traps, run longer trot lines and catch more crabs.
To protect rare terrapin turtles from drowning, waterfront residents' crab pots will have to be equipped with a wire band across the openings. A DNR spokesman said the "turtle excluder" is a simple rig-it-yourself device that costs about a dollar to install and won't reduce the crab catch.
The regulations come in the wake of a law passed by the General Assembly last spring, giving DNR the right to require licenses for some recreational crabbing.
State fisheries experts say licenses are the only way they can keep track of sport crabbers' catch -- information they say is urgently needed as evidence mounts that the blue crab, the Chesapeake's most valuable commercial species, is being overfished.
"We have never known what the recreational catch was," said Peter Jensen, DNR's deputy director of fisheries. "We had estimates ranging from 10 million pounds a year to 40 million pounds a year. This is designed to get us some information."
DNR will conduct surveys of license holders, Jensen said, and the results will help biologists figure out how many crabs are actually caught in Maryland waters each year. Over the next two years, officials will consider new limits on the overall crab catch. The review was triggered by a record low blue crab harvest last year -- about 25 million pounds, compared to the 1990s' average of 48 million pounds.
Dedicated recreational crabbers are bound to be upset by the new rules, said Ronald W. Sass, a Pasadena retiree who goes trot-lining with his son. They run a 1,700-foot trot line from their boat and haul in their two-bushel limit in a couple of hours. With a license they would be allowed 2,400 feet of trot line and three bushels.
"I have no problem with getting a license," Sass said. "I'll be happy to fill out a form at the end of the season telling them what our catch was. But why are they raising the limits when they should be lowering them?"
When the General Assembly passed the law, the forecast for the 1998 crab harvest was good, Jensen said. The fishery's late-summer plunge took everyone by surprise, he said.
DNR will hold public hearings next week on the proposed regulations: at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Dorchester County commissioners' office in Cambridge, and 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Tawes State Office Building, 580 Taylor Ave. in Annapolis.
For more information, read the proposals on the agency's Web site at www.dnr.state.md.us or call 800-688-FINS.
Pub Date: 1/28/99