New Maryland regulations aimed at reducing the Chesapeake Bay blue crab harvest by 5 percent go into effect tomorrow as a group of watermen insist the rules are unnecessary and will drive them out of business.
Arguing that the harvest cuts are based on bad science and that the regulations are arbitrary, a coalition of lower Eastern Shore watermen and seafood processor groups has hired a lawyer and threatened to go to court to stave off the regulations.
The new rules were drafted after Maryland and Virginia, faced with a series of reports of declining crab stocks, agreed to reduce their harvests by 15 percent over the next three years with the goal of doubling the size of the spawning population.
Maryland's regulations shorten watermen's workdays from 14 to eight hours and tighten restrictions requiring the workers to take off one day a week.
Jay Carman, a Crisfield waterman, says the new rules will reduce his income by about 43 percent, the same as the reduction in the number of hours.
"It's gonna devastate us," he said. "It's gonna devastate the whole Eastern Shore."
But state officials say it is unlikely anyone would lose that much money because few watermen work 14 hours a day, six days a week.
Most work an average of eight to 10 hours a day, based on the reports watermen file with the state Department of Natural Resources, says Phil Jones, the department's director of resource management.
It also is difficult to determine how much a waterman would lose because the price of crabs responds quickly to the law of supply and demand, Jones says.
If the supply is low because watermen are working fewer hours, he says, the dockside prices should go up.
A 1997 federal report found that there was "no declining trend" in the bay's crabs stocks.
But a series of reports since then has sounded the alarm of declining stocks, leading to the agreement to reduce crab harvests forged in December by the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Commission, a panel of legislators, scientists, natural resources officials and commercial seafood interests from Maryland and Virginia.
The watermen's groups have charged that the reports since 1997 are unreliable because they haven't been reviewed by independent scientists.
The watermen complain the newer studies are based on a crab life span of eight years, when crabs live only two to three years.
But the 1997 federal report found that female crabs in the Chesapeake Bay in fact live "as long as eight years ... in direct contrast to conventional wisdom." The same panel that issued that study endorsed the commission's actions in May, saying the number of crabs in the bay had sunk to its lowest level in 30 years.
Mark Terceiro, a fisheries biologist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Rhode Island, monitored the bi-state commission scientists' work.
He said their methods are well accepted "throughout the scientific community."
"The evidence with the blue crab is a slam dunk," he says. "It's pretty clear-cut. There are fewer blue crabs than there have been since the 1960s, and that's dangerous."
To meet the harvest reduction goals, Maryland required licenses for recreational crabbers and limited their catch to a bushel a day.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening wanted to impose the commercial crab regulations at the beginning of the season in April, but a legislative committee voted 6-4 against the immediate approval.
The action postponed the effective date until tomorrow, and the governor, looking for another way to achieve the 5 percent reduction, ordered this year's crabbing season closed Nov. 1, a month early.
Since then, the Maryland Watermen's Association and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have appealed unsuccessfully to the governor to relent on the November closure.
Foundation officials have said they believe the effects of the regulations should be spread evenly among watermen in different areas of the bay and who use different types of gear.
Closing November would disproportionately hurt lower bay crab potters who catch the last run of crabs migrating to spawning grounds and the crab processors who buy their catch.
The November closure was designed to make up for not having the regulations in place at the beginning of the season, says Sarah Taylor Rogers, Secretary of Natural Resources. "We've looked at the possibilities, and we haven't seen anything that changes our minds. So we're staying the course," she says.
While Maryland watermen have resisted new regulations, there has been little problem in Virginia, says Wilford Kale, spokesman for the state's Marine Resources Commission. Officials there closed the crab and peeler pot fishery a second day a week from June to August, reduced the daily catch limit in the winter dredge fishery from 20 to 17 barrels and limited recreational crabbers to a bushel of hard crabs and two-dozen peelers a day.
"When this came down, there were some that objected, but most of the watermen who had been active in the process and vocal have supported it," Kale says.