Panel rejects proposals to cut blue crab harvest

Committee's action will delay start of emergency regulations

April 25, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

A joint state House and Senate committee dealt a sharp blow yesterday to Maryland's efforts to make good on a promise to reduce its blue crab harvest by 15 percent over the next three years.

The Administrative, Executive, Legislative Review Committee rejected proposed emergency regulations that limit commercial crabbers to an eight-hour workday and tighten requirements that they take off one day a week.

With AELR approval, the regulations could have taken effect immediately. Without it, they can't go into effect until July 23. It is unclear how much the harvest will be reduced because of the delay in putting the regulations into effect.

If the regulations don't go into effect until late July, watermen will have caught 40 percent of this season's crabs, said state Department of Natural Resources spokesman John Surrick.

Virginia's Marine Resources Commission adopted regulations yesterday that they estimated will cut the state's harvest by nearly 6 percent this year.

The AELR vote, 6-4 against the regulations, pleased Eastern Shore watermen who turned out yesterday in opposition. But the vote angered Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who threatened even stricter regulations to reach a 5.5 percent reduction in Maryland's crab harvest this year.

"The governor thinks it's very unfortunate that this small group of legislators made a political decision instead of the right decision," said Mike Morrill, Glendening's spokesman. "We're going to achieve the 5.5 percent reduction in Maryland and the governor will look at more draconian measures than what was proposed, if necessary."

Morrill would not specify what options the governor is considering, but DNR officials have floated possibilities of raising the minimum crab size, reducing the amount of gear allowed, or shortening the season. "If we close the season at the end of October, we could achieve the 5.5 percent reduction," said Surrick.

The governor could impose non-emergency regulations without AELR approval.

Faced with steadily declining crab stocks, 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 - adopted a plan in December to double the spawning stock by reducing the harvest.

After a series of hearings in both states, Maryland's DNR proposed shortening the workday. "It seemed the least objectionable way to do it," said Eric Schwaab, head of DNR's fisheries division.

Watermen are allowed to work 14-hour days, but usually work nine to 10 hours, according to activity sheets they provide the department, Schwaab said.

But a group of lower Eastern Shore watermen and seafood packers started an opposition campaign, arguing that the time limits are unsafe and would drive them out of business and that the regulations are based on faulty science. About 75 of them attended yesterday's meeting.

Crab stocks are cyclical, argued Joseph T. DeAlteris, a University of Rhode Island fisheries professor hired by the watermen. Although they reached record lows last season, they could bounce back next season, he said.

Terry Conway, a Crisfield seafood packer, said the state should delay implementing the regulations until results from a crab stock survey this year are known.

The regulations "are the most severe in the last 35 years and we are discouraged that the watermen, always an easy target, are being asked again to bear the burden," Conway said.

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