Newly approved limits on recreational crabbing may spur further efforts

Restrictions are part of plan signed by Md., Va.

April 11, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

A bill to license those who crab for fun, adopted during the General Assembly's rush to adjournment Monday, may have jump-started efforts to revive the Chesapeake Bay's dwindling crab population, state officials and environmentalists said yesterday.

The measure, which requires most recreational crabbers 16 and older to get licenses and sets catch limits, would be the first of several steps in a plan Maryland and Virginia adopted in December to double the spawning stock by cutting the harvest by 15 percent.

Efforts to put the plan into action had been snarled by angry watermen, legislators and fisheries regulators waiting for others to take the first step.

The Potomac River Fisheries Commission adopted new regulations March 30. But crabbers in the Potomac account for only 10 percent of the annual catch bay-wide.

"This really does mean we're getting off the dime," said Bill Goldsborough, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Now we have in place the recreational component of cutbacks. ... And the next piece is the commercial component in Virginia."

Faced with steadily declining crab harvests, a committee of 27 scientists concluded 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 the plan approved in December.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission, faced with angry watermen and seafood packers, voted last month to do nothing until it heard from Maryland.

After a work session yesterday, the commission appears ready to adopt new regulations at its April 24 meeting, said Jack G. Travelstead, the commission's chief of fisheries management.

The commission is considering shortening the crab pot season, which runs from April 1 to Nov. 30, by a month; requiring watermen, who now are forbidden to crab on Sundays, to take another day of the week off as well; and reducing the daily limit in the winter dredge fishery from 20 bushels to 15 bushels.

"We're clearly committed to measures to achieve a 5 percent reduction this year," said Travelstead.

A joint House and Senate committee in Maryland, which must approve emergency regulations, is to meet the same day as the VMRC to consider the Department of Natural Resources' proposed commercial regulations.

"We have [the recreational crab licenses] and we have our commercial regulatory hearing scheduled," said Eric Schwaab, the DNR's director of fisheries. "We're on a pretty good track to finish what we started."

Recreational crabbers must get a $5 license to take more than two dozen crabs in a day, but can take no more than a bushel a day under the bill adopted by the General Assembly. The measure also sets a limit of two bushels a day for boats with two licensees aboard.

The money raised through the license fees would be used to finance a study of the size of the recreational fishery.

Watermen who had complained they were the only ones being asked to sacrifice were heartened that recreational crabbers also faced restrictions.

"By the recreational bill passing, it eases our stance a little bit," said Larry Simns, the Maryland Watermen's Association president who two weeks ago withdrew his support for the commercial restrictions. "We were afraid it wouldn't pass. Now we'll have to re-evaluate our position."

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