Crab harvest likely to be among worst

Bay surveys find little change after three bad years

`Too soon to tell'

Bill on licensing recreational crabbers runs into trouble

March 14, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Maryland's blue crab harvest, the worst on record last year, probably won't be any better this year, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

The results of dredge surveys conducted this winter in the Maryland and Virginia portions of the bay show little change from the past three years, when recreational and commercial harvests dropped well below the long-term annual average of 37 million pounds, Phil Jones, director of resource management for DNR's fisheries service, said yesterday.

"It's too soon to tell if it will be another record-low year," Jones said, though he acknowledged that the survey has been "pretty accurate" since it began 12 years ago.

The department released the figures as attempts to get a bill to license recreational crabbers through the General Assembly seem to have gone adrift.

Although the measures have broad support and public opposition has been almost nonexistent, Republican legislators on environmental committees in the Senate and House of Delegates have balked.

"I'm concerned about the recreational guy, particularly the one who may live on the bay who simply wants to get some crabs," said Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Howard County Republican. "This might put an undue hardship on him by having to get a license and restricting the amount of crabs he can get at any one time."

The measures, introduced last month, have been up for hearings in the House Environmental Matters Committee and the Senate Environmental and Economic Affairs Committee. Committee votes are expected this week in both houses.

"The idea of requiring every land owner to be licensed has not caught fire with the members of the committee I've had discussions with," said Del. Kenneth D. Schlisler, a Lower Shore Republican. "It's overkill."

The bills are part of a two-state effort to double the size of the blue crab spawning stock by cutting the harvest 15 percent over the next three years. In Maryland, recreational crabbers older than 16, including owners of waterfront properties who drop crab pots off their piers, would have to purchase a license and limit their catches to a bushel a day. The bushel-a-day limit also would apply to boats.

Regulations require licenses for recreational crabbers only when they use a lot of equipment. Licensed recreational crabbers may take three bushels per boat per day, and unlicensed crabbers may take up to two bushels a day.

As the DNR pushes for recreational crab licenses, it is also proposing commercial crabbing rules that would limit watermen to an eight-hour workday and make it easier to enforce the existing six-day work week.

Virginia has limited the number of commercial crab licenses available and has set up a summertime deepwater sanctuary in the main stem of the bay. The Virginia legislature adopted a measure in its recent session that would give the state's Marine Resources Commission the authority to impose regulations on recreational crabbers, but Gov. James S. Gilmore has not signed it.

Scientists, pointing to surveys that show the bay's most valuable commercial stock is being fished to its limit, say they hope the restrictions will stem the decline of the blue crab population and reverse a trend toward smaller crabs.

The recreational license bill "should not be viewed in isolation," said Bill Goldsborough, a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "It is part of a broad strategy that also includes a slate of commercial regulations now on a parallel track."

The money from the licenses, which would be expected to total about $140,000 next year, would go to a study to determine the size of the recreational crab harvest. The results of earlier studies have varied widely, from 19 percent of the total harvest to 41 percent.

Sen. Brian Frosh, sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said he is "mystified" by the opposition. "The objections that are being raised are not within the realm of reality," he said. "People who live on the water, we require them to get a fishing license, a boat license, they have to obey critical-areas laws. This isn't any imposition. What's the big deal?"

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