After the worst crab harvest of the past eight years, Maryland is proposing new commercial crabbing rules that would limit watermen to an eight-hour workday and make it easier to enforce the existing six-day workweek.
The new regulations, scheduled to take effect when the blue crab season opens April 1, are part of a joint effort by Virginia and Maryland to reduce the crab catch by about 15 percent over the next three years.
Fisheries managers say they hope the restrictions will reverse a worrisome trend toward smaller crabs, fewer crabs of spawning age and other signs that blue crabs are being fished to the maximum level the species can endure, and may be headed for a crash.
Maryland watermen caught 21 million pounds of blue crabs last year -- the worst crab harvest since the state began keeping reliable records in 1993. That year, the harvest was 57 million pounds, and the trend has been downward ever since.
"All these trends are saying that we have something here over the long term that we need to turn around," said Eric Schwaab, fisheries director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Schwaab said scientists estimate that watermen catch about 51 percent of all the crabs in the bay each year. Officials hope the new restrictions will reduce that to about 43 percent.
"The ultimate goal is to catch a smaller percentage of the crab population in any given year," Schwaab said. "Then the harvest will rise and fall appropriately with the crab population."
The new regulations set starting times that vary from month to month with the sunrise, require watermen to declare whether they're taking Sunday or Monday as a day off and to keep their boats docked on the chosen day, and forbid the use of juvenile crabs as bait in "peeler pots" for soft-shell crabs.
Currently, watermen are allowed to work a 14-hour day, from 3 a.m. to 5 p.m. The regulations also limit working hours in the coastal bays and prohibit crab dredging or scraping there. Schwaab said those restrictions are meant to prevent watermen from moving to the coastal bays and overfishing those waters, which now produce about 5 percent of the state's crab harvest.
State officials first announced two years ago that harvest restrictions would probably be needed to stabilize the blue crab population.
"We're not crazy about the regulations, but we're going to have to live with them," said Bob Evans, 50, a Shadyside waterman. Evans said most watermen would prefer to see stricter enforcement of existing regulations.
"All this is going to hurt is the legal guy," Evans said. "The 10 percent that are outlaws, those guys are still going to keep doing what they're doing."
Public hearings on the proposed regulations will be held Monday at the Dorchester County Public Library in Cambridge, Tuesday at Ocean Pines Library in Berlin and March 1 at Anne Arundel Community College's Florestano Building in Arnold. Each hearing is scheduled to run from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.