Crab harvest in July dismal

But surge in August has watermen feeling optimistic for season

August 21, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

A year after the worst July crab harvest on record, state environmental officials say the traditional peak month for Maryland's favorite seafood was no better this year. But watermen throughout the Chesapeake appear not the least concerned.

Despite what look like grim statistics -- two straight seasons in which the midsummer catch was nearly 40 percent below average -- a late surge of crustaceans is filling crab pots, peeler pots and trot lines from Rock Hall to the lower Eastern Shore.

"We had a real slow start, that's for sure; now it's crabs everywhere, like they fell from the sky," said Jim Jacquette, who heads the Kent County Watermen's Association. "There are more crabs up the Chester River than I've seen in 10 or 15 years."

State officials were alarmed last July when watermen landed 4.8 million pounds of blue crabs, off from the month's average catch of 7.6 million pounds and a steep drop from the nearly 12 million pounds harvested in July 1993, the best month this decade.

Last month, the catch was nearly identical, just over 4.8 million pounds.

This time, however, scientists from the Department of Natural Resources and other agencies that monitor the health of the bay say they saw it coming.

"April through July was no great shakes this year, but it was pretty much what we expected," said Bill Schwaab, DNR's director of fisheries. "Our winter dredge survey indicated that we'd see numbers that were significantly below average, then a rebound in late summer. It's the same thing we saw last year."

What worries state officials, who continue to consider the blue crab a "fully exploited" species, is the wide fluctuation in monthly harvests, which they say indicates that an overall decline in the number of crabs is likely to continue.

Jack Brooks, who runs J. M Clayton Co., a crab-packing operation in Cambridge, isn't sure about the long-term outlook. He is sure there are plenty of crabs in the bay and its tributaries right now.

"It really started to pick up in the last two or three weeks," Brooks said. "For a while, there were so many we got to where we couldn't buy every day. I can go out on my dock and see crabs all over. It looks like an exceptionally good month for August."

For two years running, the state's winter survey has shown declining numbers of young crabs, pointing toward a slow early season but more crabs available for harvest late in the season as the animals mature and reach market size.

"As long as [watermen] are catching something and making money, everybody should be happy," said David Blazer, Maryland's director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. "It's great news that they're doing well now, especially since there was very little optimism this time last year. But there is still reason for concern when the numbers vary so much month to month."

Officials hope that better cooperation between Virginia and Maryland will lead to better management of the 300-mile-long fishery.

"In general, I'd say we've seen a continuing long-term trend toward less abundance throughout the bay," said Schwaab. "One thing that's changed in the last couple years is that what Virginia and Maryland have done has been complementary, and that's everything from trying to protect female crabs at the mouth of the bay to restricting dredging during the winter and limiting the number of new commercial licenses.

"There's still so much we don't know," Schwaab said. "This year, with so little rain, what's the impact of higher salinity? There's a need for more biological data. We need to stay cautious."

Watermen are skeptical at the state's ability to predict crab harvests. Too often, they say, environmental officials ignore information provided by commercial fishermen.

Watermen say that last summer, for instance, their claims that large numbers of rockfish, croakers and other predator fish were gobbling up immature crabs were dismissed. Many believe that the return this year of large numbers of menhaden and other bait fish has helped more crabs live long enough to be harvested.

"The state is always gloom and doom," said David Kemp, who has been tending trot lines on Back Creek in St. Michaels for most of his 55 years. "It's been fairly steady for me all year. I'm not getting rich, but I'm living. Overall, Mother Nature will take care of us."

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