The different kind of crabber

ON THE BAY

Technique: David Corbin once tried working as a prison guard but found himself drawn back to `scraping,' a subtle form of harvesting and one that is threatened.

January 18, 2002|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

DAVID CORBIN of Crisfield recalls his five months in prison as some of the hardest time he's spent.

It was 1997, and he was a guard, having left a life of crabbing the Chesapeake Bay to gain more security for his family.

At the Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County, he was assigned to a tier where prisoner-artists had daubed the walls with bay scenes like lighthouses and crabbing shanties.

"It drove me crazy, looking at all that," Corbin says. "After five months I went back to scraping."

"Scraping" may not register with readers as an occupation. But among themselves, watermen talk less about "crabbing" than about "crab-potting," "trotlining," "crab dredging," "bank-trapping" and "dipnetting." All these techniques make harvesting the bay an interesting part of Maryland culture, but also devilish to regulate.

Each type of crabber usually has the perfect way to conserve crabs, and it usually is anathema to other types. Among all the ways to crab, scraping is one of the most subtle and fascinating. They say good scrapers start young. Corbin began as a 13-year-old in Tylerton on Smith Island.

His dad equipped him with smaller versions of the traditional, 28-foot scrape boat, and the iron scrapes that are dragged through the sea grass beds to capture soft crabs and "peelers," crabs that will soon shed their shells.

Except for his prison interlude, Corbin, 40, has crab-scraped ever since. His father, Les, 73, is still scraping. His grandfather scraped until he was 82.

"So it's more than just a living to me," Corbin says. "It's a way of life, an art that's been in my ancestry for more than a hundred years."

But now, scraping could become an unfortunate, early casualty of Maryland's generally laudable proposals to conserve the bay's depressed crab populations.

That would be ironic. Practiced by no more than a few dozen watermen in Maryland, scraping has minimal impact on crabs.

Unlike the bay's several thousand crabbers who use one type of crab pot or another, scrapers can't increase their effort by putting out more pots. Nor can they move opportunistically around the bay like other crabbers to wherever is a hot spot for fishing.

Scraping is done from flounder-shaped boats, more than a third as wide as they are long, at speeds of a couple of miles an hour in waters no more than knee deep.

Scrapers ply the shallow, underwater grass beds, scooping thick rolls of grass into the long, mesh bags that trail from the iron-framed mouths of twin scrapes, attached by a stout rope to either side of the boat.

The scrapes are smooth, not toothed like a dredge, and don't uproot or harm the grass beds.

They often work all summer in sight of their hometowns, fishing the same grass beds day after day, becoming more familiar with the bottom there than with their back yard -- "a unique way of knowing the bay," Corbin says.

The grass beds are prime hiding spots for crabs to shed their shells. Hauling the heavy scrapes in hand over hand, heaving them up onto the boat's washboards, the crabber spends his days bent over like a field hand, picking through the grass for peelers and softies.

It's hell on the lumbar vertebrae. Older scrapers often use a single scrape, pulled up by a hydraulic winch. Corbin went to this after a recent back operation, but now that he's healing is thinking of scraping by hand again.

Either way, scrapers say, it's hard enough work that increasing one's fishing effort, as most segments of the bay crab fishery have done, is impossible.

The scrapers' problem is that the new regulations, to be debated in the legislature in coming weeks, raise the minimum size from 3 inches for peelers to 3.5, and from 3.5 to 4.25 inches for soft crabs.

This needs to be done. Fishing pressure on peelers and soft crabs has been rising -- not from scraping, but from "peeler potting," using modified hard-crab pots to catch shedding crabs.

But the rules apply equally to scrapers. Worse, it appears that the crabs caught in the sea-grass beds, where scrapers work exclusively, are smaller on average than those caught in peeler pots.

Corbin has kept records for 14 years on what he catches and sells. His books show 40 percent to 70 percent of his catches many days would be illegal by the new rules.

"I figure it would take half of my catch away," he says.

Peeler potters would sacrifice, but not nearly as much, he says. The regulations aim to reduce crab harvests by an overall 15 percent.

Scientists are convinced it's the only way to ensure against the commercial collapse of crabs, which are at or near historic lows in overall numbers and numbers of spawning adults.

Some biologists think scrapers might manage in the long run, as the little crabs they don't catch grow larger, and are caught later and sold for more money.

But there's also evidence that as crabs grow, the larger ones leave the grass beds.

I'd like to see scrapers exempted from the rules for a year, to see how it all sorts out.

Biologically, the impact would be minimal. Politically, however, any exemption could open the floodgates and snarl the proposed rules. It's a tough call for legislators and the state Department of Natural Resources.

But I'd hate to send David Corbin back to prison, which is where he's reapplying now that he's seen the future.

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