Protesting crabbing limits

Close: As their season ends a month early, watermen fault a policy of restrictions they say only helps their Virginia counterparts.

November 01, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Maryland's abbreviated crab season ended in anger yesterday, with lower Eastern Shore watermen complaining bitterly that state conservation measures have deprived them of a lucrative late-season catch while lining the traps -- and pockets -- of their competitors in Virginia.

Yet, even as livid watermen compare Gov. Parris N. Glendening with the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan for his decision to end the state's crabbing season a month early, they are being asked to choose more conservation measures -- such as a cap on their daily catch or fewer workdays -- all aimed at cutting their harvests more next year.

A hostile crowd of about 80 watermen shouted accusations in Salisbury on Monday night as Department of Natural Resources officials tried to document their case that harvest restrictions are needed because the bay's overall crab stocks are declining.

"I've seen so many of these charts I could throw up on them," shouted John Horner of Deal Island. "There's an old saying: `Figures don't lie, but liars figure.' Today, I caught 89 bushels of hard crabs. That's twice the number of crabs I ever caught in October."

Farther up the bay, where crabs have been scarcer in the season's waning weeks, DNR held a less combative discussion with local watermen about possible new catch limits next year.

The department has scheduled a third meeting tonight in Solomons.

Despite decreasing harvests baywide and surveys that show the bay's blue crab population has reached its lowest point in 30 years, many watermen -- mainly on the lower shore -- have insisted there is no need to reduce the catch 15 percent over the next three years, as scientists recommend. The state's harvest regulations, they argue, are designed to drive them out of business.

"This shows a total disregard and insensitivity of the Maryland government," Roy Ford of Deal Island protested at the Salisbury meeting. "We're American citizens, and it should be us first. This is a dagger in our hearts."

Eric Schwaab, state fisheries director, said he understands why lower shore watermen so hotly dispute scientists' findings of a declining Chesapeake crab stock: Harvests in Tangier Sound and other lower shore tributaries have not dropped as significantly as in other parts of the bay. But, Schwaab said, "it doesn't change ... the grand scheme of things."

As part of its agreement with Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission to cut the crab catch, Maryland moved in April to shorten commercial crabbers' workdays from 14 to eight hours. The state also required them to take off one day a week and imposed new limits on recreational crabbers. But a legislative committee blocked immediate approval of the commercial regulations, which were designed to reduce the catch this year by 5 percent. Because the new rules did not go into effect until late July, halfway through the season, Glendening ordered the season closed Nov. 1, a month early, to make up the difference.

While the shorter hours annoyed crabbers, it is the November closure that has stoked their passions, especially on the lower shore, where the best hard crab runs come in the fall. They contend that Virginia watermen, whose crab-pot season doesn't end until Dec. 1, will take what Maryland crabbers can't catch in November, as the crabs migrate south for the winter.

Glendening "isn't looking out for the people he governs, he's looking out for the people of Virginia," said Roger Morris, who crabs out of Wingate in Dorchester County.

Worse, the governor doesn't seem to care, said J.C. Tolley, owner of Meredith and Meredith Seafood in Toddville. Tolley wrote Glendening in September to ask him to extend unemployment benefits for his workers, who will lose their jobs early because of the shortened season. In the reply, dated Oct. 19, Glendening wrote of "the many summer crab feasts" he has enjoyed and stressed the need for conservation, but never mentioned the unemployment benefits.

"It's a form letter," Tolley complained. "A form letter."

Raquel Gillory, a spokeswoman for the governor, said yesterday that the request has been referred to the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, but she could not comment on the letter.

While the governor and environmental groups talk of conservation, the watermen of Wingate Harbor, off the Honga River, brag of 100 bushel-a-day catches over the past month and wonder what the problem is.

Baywide, crab catches this year have remained at or below last year's record low, according to harvest reports through September. Virginia and the Potomac River commission have taken different steps to reduce harvest in their jurisdictions. A few Maryland watermen have Virginia licenses and can fish there through November, but "it's not a pretty thing to do," waterman Harold Robinson said.

Smith Islanders said yesterday that tensions between the residents of Maryland's last outpost in Chesapeake Bay and their counterparts on Virginia's Tangier Island seemed to be growing.

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