Crab rules kept at bay

Legislation to cut harvest has stalled as session nears close

Va. waiting for Md. to act

Watermen oppose shorter days, season, and fewer crab pots

April 06, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Maryland and Virginia leaders hailed as a "giant step forward" in December their plan to nurse the Chesapeake Bay's fading blue crab fishery back to health by cutting the annual harvest by 15 percent and doubling the spawning stock over three years.

But when the crabbing season started Sunday, little had changed.

Virginia's fisheries regulators, faced with angry watermen and seafood packers, voted last month to do nothing until they hear from Maryland.

Both houses of Maryland's General Assembly adopted weakened measures to license recreational crabbers and reduce their harvests, but the bills have not reached a conference committee, and the legislature is rushing to adjournment Monday.

A joint hearing on the Department of Natural Resources' proposed emergency restrictions on commercial crabbers was abruptly canceled last week, leaving the regulations in limbo.

A coalition of lower Eastern Shore watermen and seafood processors has threatened to sue the state over the restrictions, which cut the amount of time watermen can fish for crabs, and the Maryland Watermen's Association has withdrawn its support.

Association President Larry Simns says his members are prepared to make sacrifices to protect the crab fishery, but not without guarantees that others will do their part.

Jay Carman, a Crisfield waterman and spokesman for the Save the Crabber Coalition, argues that there is "no science" behind the management plan and that state regulators have "taken enough away from us already."

Ann Pesiri Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an advisory group of state legislators from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, said the opposition "confounds" her.

"People love the crab. They love it as an icon of the region. They love to eat it. Yet they don't seem to understand that if they want crabs for the long haul, everybody needs to make a sacrifice now."

Faced with steadily declining crab stocks, a committee of 27 scientists concluded in December that the harvest must be cut by 15 percent to avoid a population crash. The Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee, composed of legislators, fisheries regulators, commercial seafood interests and environmentalists from both states, had met for two years to draft a plan to stop the slide.

The committee held hearings throughout Maryland and Virginia before completing a plan that calls for doubling the spawning stock by reducing the harvest.

"I don't know what happened," said Maryland Del. John F. Wood Jr., who was on the committee. "The consensus was that we have a problem and we need to do something about it."

Only the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, which is responsible for roughly 10 percent of the bay area's annual crab harvest, has adopted new regulations.

The commission, which regulates fishing on the Potomac, voted Friday to shorten its crab season by a month, reduce the number of crab pots allowed per boat and impose restrictions on recreational crabbers.

"We didn't mean to be first," said A. C. Carpenter, the commission's executive director. "We scheduled our hearings the last week in March, knowing and anticipating that Maryland and Virginia would have acted by then. But both states fooled us."

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission considered shortening the work day and the crab pot season, which runs from April 1 to Nov. 30, cutting crab pot limits and creating more crab sanctuaries. But the agency's advisory committee "wanted to make sure other jurisdictions were going to go along with what they were proposing," said Jack G. Travelstead, chief of fisheries management.

"We knew it was going to be difficult," he said, promising that the commission would adopt new regulations at its April 24 meeting.

In Maryland, Republicans on environmental committees in both houses of the legislature balked at licensing recreational crabbers, despite broad public support for such a move. The $5 fee would put an "undue burden" on waterfront property owners who drop crab pots off their docks, they complained.

The versions that eventually emerged exempted waterfront property owners. The Senate version also exempts those who catch fewer than two dozen crabs a day, while the House version raises that figure to four dozen and allows licensed recreational crabbers to catch up to a bushel a day.

"I think the fear among legislators of a backlash among their constituents is overblown," says Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the Senate bill. "The notion that anybody ought to catch up to 50 crabs a day without a license, to me, is nuts."

It is unlikely that Maryland's Joint Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee, which must approve emergency regulations, will meet again on the commercial crab restrictions before the end of the General Assembly session.

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