Crab politics heating up

ON THE BAY

Catches: Lawmakers wrestle over "chicken neckers," and a new era begins for horseshoe crabs.

March 02, 2001|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

THIS WEEK is a two-part crabfest: an end to Virginia's rapacious exploitation of horseshoe crabs and time "chicken neckers" stepped up to save the blue crab.

First, the blue crab, callinectes sapidus, literally the savory, beautiful swimmer, whose fate is the subject of several bills in the current legislative session.

Faced with an unprecedented scarcity of blue crabs, Maryland and Virginia have reached a historic agreement to reduce commercial catches by 15 percent over three years.

It will be hard on watermen, who are already screaming over proposed restrictions including an eight-hour maximum harvest day.

It's safe to say the 99-plus percent of Marylanders who aren't commercial crabbers agree that the watermen's sacrifice is tolerable to restore such a great natural resource.

But look for the hollering to begin as talk of sacrifice extends to the millions of pounds of crabs caught recreationally each year by "chicken neckers" with their hand lines, collapsible traps and pots set off private docks.

Companion legislative bills (HB 772 and SB 514), would limit recreational types to a bushel a day of hard crabs per boat, and require a $5 a year crabbing license ($2 if added to one's $9-a-year Chesapeake Bay sportfishing license).

The Annapolis Capital newspaper perversely captured, in a recent editorial, the hypocrisy of sport crabbers who don't consider themselves part of the problem.

Lawmakers are using "nickel-and-dime tactics to harass an innocuous bunch of taxpayers. ... The idea that chicken-neckers are playing a substantial role in diminishing the state's crab population is ridiculous," the Capital wrote in opposing the legislation.

There's already too much blaming the other guy for bay problems: suburbanites pointing at watermen and farm pollution; farmers and watermen pointing at suburban sewage discharges.

Picture them all standing in a circle, pointing at the next guy. The real point is that we're all in the circle.

No one knows how many crabs are caught recreationally in Maryland each year. Three sport-crabbing surveys between 1983 and the mid-1990s came up with estimates ranging from 11 million to 41 million pounds annually. The surveys are considered flawed by scientists who have analyzed them.

Commercial catches, more accurately reported, have ranged from more than 60 million pounds to last year's low of a little more than 20 million pounds.

No one today thinks sport crabbers catch nearly as much as watermen do, but with hundreds of thousands of us making an estimated 2.5 million outings each year, our impact is significant.

Restoring the Chesapeake Bay will take all who affect it in any measurable way doing a better job of reducing their environmental impact. A license and fee would count sport crabbers for the first time and generate money to determine accurately just what is the recreational impact.

Maryland spends less than a third as much managing crabs as it does for striped bass, even though crabbing has an economic impact nearly six times larger.

No one loves another license, another fee. But watermen and sport crabbers will benefit from better crab management, which is the real reason to pass these bills.

Horseshoe crab help

When last we wrote about the horseshoe crab, an ancient creature whose annual mass egg-laying around Delaware Bay is vital food for huge spring bird migrations, Virginia was flouting the conservation efforts of states including Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey.

As Maryland cut horseshoe harvests by 75 percent in response to plummeting numbers of spawning crabs, Virginia let fishermen from New England to the Carolinas land up to a million horseshoe crabs a year in its harbors.

Their action defied a federal-state conservation plan for the East Coast so that they could furnish bait - the cut-up horseshoe crab bodies - for local conch fishermen.

In recent months the picture has changed greatly.

The federal government closed crabbing in 1,500 square miles of ocean stretching about 60 miles, between Ocean City and New Jersey. The bulk of the horseshoe crabs have come from there in recent years.

And Virginia, pressured by environmental groups and other states, has agreed to a quota of 152,000 crabs a year.

In agreeing, Virginia insisted on what could turn out to be a loophole, proposed language (public hearings to be held soon) that says states catching less than their quota of crabs could transfer them to another state.

In practice, the likelihood of transfers will be remote, says Tom O'Connell, a state of Maryland biologist who coordinates the coast-wide horseshoe conservation plan.

Virginia, he says, would have to prove not only that obtaining more crabs wouldn't harm the species, but also that it didn't harm shorebirds from as far off as Argentina that rely on crab eggs to fuel their northward migrations.

It appears the birds need "a superabundance" of eggs, i.e. more spawning crabs than might be needed just to sustain the horseshoe population, O'Connell says.

It will take years to reach the scientific understanding needed to make such evaluations, and transfers probably won't be approved before then, O'Connell thinks.

Also, Virginia has limited the total amount of crabs it would ever take to about a third of its peak, million-a-year landings.

No matter what, the bad old days of overfishing the horseshoe crab seem to have ended.

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