Crab rules lose favor

Watermen groups will testify against proposed restrictions

`Seeing the bay get worse'

March 29, 2001|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

On the eve of a crucial vote on the future of the Chesapeake Bay blue crab and crabbers, Maryland watermen are suddenly withdrawing their reluctant support for new commercial crabbing restrictions.

Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Waterman's Association, praised the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' two-year effort to develop new regulations aimed at protecting the declining crab fishery. But he said he would testify against the regulations at a hearing today before a joint committee of the Maryland House and Senate in Annapolis.

Simns said he would tell the committee that watermen are prepared to sacrifice to protect the long-term health of the crab, but that others must do the same.

"No matter what they do to us, it's not going to make a fiddler's dam about the crab population if they don't take care of the other environmental issues" such as sewage spills and loss of bay grasses, he said.

"Everybody's got to bite the bullet," Simns said, criticizing other state agencies' enforcement of environmental measures. "We're sick of seeing the bay get worse and worse and worse."

Simns said he expects the regulations to become law and called his testimony "symbolic." But a new group of dissident watermen is adamant in its opposition.

Attorneys for the Save The Crabber Coalition spent three hours combing through blue crab reports at the state Department of Natural Resources yesterday. Then they did the same at the offices of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an advisory group of legislators from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Jay Carman, a Crisfield waterman and spokesman for the coalition, said the group plans to use the documents to challenge the DNR's crab conservation plan at the hearing today before the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review.

If necessary, Carman said, his organization of Lower Eastern Shore watermen will sue the state to block the regulations.

"They're doing this with no good science behind them," Carman said. "We're opposed to them 100 percent. They've taken enough away from us already."

If the committee votes to impose the new restrictions on commercial crabbers today, they would become law April 1.

If the committee doesn't approve the emergency regulations, new crab protection measures could be in jeopardy baywide, said Ann Pesiri Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. "I fear that unless the people of the region have the guts to reduce their harvest, we could lose the crab, and we could lose the watermen, which would be horrible," Swanson said.

Fisheries officials in Virginia and along the Potomac River are waiting to see what restrictions Maryland imposes on its watermen. A bill to require some recreational crabbers to get licenses has passed the Maryland Senate, and is undergoing daily revisions in the House of Delegates.

"Things are really in flux right now," Swanson said. "It's all in this big soup kettle, and we're stirring it around, and every time we stir the pot, we lose a little bit of protection for the crab."

A committee of 27 scientists concluded that blue crabs are being harvested to the limit and could suffer a collapse. Last year's harvest was a record low in the 13 years since the DNR began keeping good records, and a winter survey of hibernating crabs suggests this season won't be any better.

To prevent catastrophe, the scientists recommended allowing the crabs' breeding population to double. To reach that goal, Maryland and Virginia have agreed to reduce the crab catch from each state's waters by 15 percent.

The DNR's proposed regulations limit commercial crabbers to an eight-hour workday beginning at sunrise, require them to take Sunday or Monday off and impose other restrictions.

In the past week, DNR officials have altered the regulations at the request of watermen - for example, allowing crabbers who use pots an extra hour at the end of each day to move their pots to new locations. But the concessions apparently were for naught.

"It's kind of a touchy situation," said Eric Schwaab, DNR's director of fisheries. "Up until very recently, the waterman's association had been working with us very closely on this. ... I think they're being put in a difficult position by this group on the Lower Shore."

Del. John S. Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat and co-chairman of the committee, said he hasn't counted votes on the regulations. "It doesn't help" that the watermen oppose it, he said.

But Simns said he has counted the committee's votes and that "it's going to pass. If I thought they weren't going to pass it ... I might take a different approach."

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