MECHANICSVILLE - Nearly everyone in the social hall of this St. Mary's County firehouse agreed that the Chesapeake Bay blue crab population is in trouble. The question was, what to do about it. And there wasn't much agreement on that.
Crack down on recreational crabbers and enforce existing laws, some watermen said. Set commercial catch limits, said recreational crabbers, and ban taking female crabs.
The Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee has taken its show on the road, holding public meetings in schools, council chambers and fire halls to seek feedback on proposals to ease the pressure on the bay's most economically important fishery.
Faced with steadily declining crab stocks, scientists have said the harvest must be cut by 15 percent to stave off a crash. Among the options are reducing the number of days or hours watermen can work, placing restrictions on the amount of gear they can use or quotas on their catch.
The blue crab panel, created by Maryland and Virginia, is halfway through a series of meetings in both states to hear what watermen, recreational crabbers, conservationists and others have to say. And while they have said a lot, they have agreed on little: licensing recreational crabbers, improving the health of the bay and easing limits on catching rockfish.
Rockfish, once on the verge of extinction in the bay, have made a stunning comeback and are preying on juvenile crabs, said the watermen, who argued that restrictions on rockfish catches should be eased. Forty-seven percent of the rockfish caught in one study had an average of 21 small crabs in their stomachs, said Terry Conway, a seafood packer from Crisfield. But the author of the study, Jacque Van Monfrantz of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, said that doesn't mean the comeback of the rockfish, also known as striped bass, has led to the decline of blue crabs.
His study focused on grass beds near the mouths of four Virginia rivers, nursery areas for juvenile crabs to congregate, he said. Rockfish "feed on whatever is most available," and in the grass beds, that's juvenile crabs.
"It's readily apparent that as striped bass increase, they eat more crabs. But peeler pots have doubled and effort has gone up in all the [crab] fisheries," he said. "It's natural to try to place blame elsewhere, but in reality I don't think that by reducing the striped bass population, you'll increase the blue crab population."
The grass beds, which scientists believe once covered 600,000 acres of bay bottom, are among the keys to restoring the crab population because they provide shelter, help clean the water by absorbing nutrients and suppress erosion. They are so important that federal and state officials have promised to increase the acreage from 68,000 to 114,000 acres by 2005.
But restoration efforts have been spotty because high levels of nutrients create algae blooms that block vital sunlight to the grasses, and wave action and erosion often wash away tentative efforts at new plantings. In 1998, grasses declined by 8 percent overall, then increased by 8 percent last year.
Without the grasses, limits on commercial crabbing won't make much difference, watermen say.
"We could stop crabbing today, and 10 years from now it won't be any better unless the government does something about the water quality," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "We're willing to sacrifice some if we see that more is being done to take care of some of these other problems."
Other watermen are less collegial. "We don't need a 15 percent reduction," said Bob Evans, president of the Anne Arundel County Watermen's Association. "If we had enforcement of the laws we have now, we wouldn't be here."
The argument is one Lt. Col. Tammy Broll, chief of field operations for the Department of Natural Resources Police, hears "at every single meeting I go to when we're talking about new regulations." But the department doesn't have "the manpower to focus solely on crabbing 24 hours a day, seven days a week," she said.
While watermen call for enforcement, they complain repeatedly they are being "regulated to death."
In Maryland's portion of the Chesapeake, commercial crabbers can fish up to 900 pots from April 1 to Nov. 30, depending on their licenses. They are forbidden to put the pots in the main part of the bay and required to take Sunday or Monday off.
While no limit has been set on their catch or how many hours a day they can fish, they are faced with a dizzying array of requirements for the size and configuration of their pots, as well as trot lines, crab scrapes and impoundment areas in the creeks and rivers.
The watermen's complaints did not impress Ken Hastings, a board member of the Coastal Conservation Association in Maryland.
"I object to the biased, self-serving interests I've heard here tonight and I disagree that commercial users have been shouldering the burden," he said at the Mechanicsville meeting. "We've all done it. We've all created the problem. We all have to fix it."
The committee has scheduled another hearing on Thursday evening at the Harford County Council chambers in Bel Air.