Crab pickers decry rules

Processors fear for their industry on Eastern Shore

500 jobs seen at stake

January 18, 2002|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

CAMBRIDGE -- Maryland's proposed crab regulations, which would increase minimum legal sizes for males, outlaw taking females with their egg sacs showing and ban importing undersized crustaceans, could cost more than 500 workers their jobs and squeeze the state's crab processors out of business, a new study says.

The impact would be felt most seriously in Dorchester County, where picking houses make up as much as 2 percent of the local manufacturing base, employing 3.3 percent of the county labor force, according to the study by Douglas Lipton, a University of Maryland economist.

A consortium of seafood packers commissioned the study. They released it at a waterfront restaurant here last night.

The packers, suffering as imported crab meat has gobbled up more than two-thirds of the national market, would be crushed under the regulations because they would not be able to buy the out-of-state crabs to fill their orders, the study said.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Maryland section mischaracterized the origins of a study that predicted economic damage to the state's crab-picking industry stemming from proposed regulations. A coalition of seafood packers asked Douglas Lipton, a University of Maryland economist, to conduct the study, but did not pay for it. The study was financed through Maryland Sea Grant. The Sun regrets the error.

"We can't operate under these regulations," said J.C. Tolley, owner of Meredith and Meredith Seafood in Toddville. "We're out of business."

Tolley threatened in December to close his business rather than try to operate under the new regulations, which are designed to cut Maryland's blue crab harvest by 15 percent.

J. Charles Fox, state secretary of natural resources, said last night that the study would "be helpful" to him as he finishes work on the regulations, which are to go into effect April 1, the beginning of the crab season.

He has scheduled public hearings next month in Salisbury, Annapolis and Solomons and expects to issue the final version of the regulations in early March.

Also yesterday, a delegation of Lower Eastern Shore crabbers and seafood processors met with Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest to complain that state officials have not listened to their fears about the effects of the regulations.

The proposed regulations would be a high-cost way of cutting the crab harvest, the study said, and "appear to place an inequitable burden on the processing sector of the crabbing industry, and especially in one county."

Dorchester regularly has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.

Studies have shown that the Chesapeake Bay blue crab stock is dangerously low and the population could crash in the face of a catastrophe such as a hurricane. Fisheries regulators in Maryland and Virginia agreed in December 2000 to cut the crab harvest by 15 percent over three years in hopes of doubling the stock of crabs left in the bay to reproduce.

Both states and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, which regulates fishing in the tidal Potomac, cut harvests by 5 percent to 6 percent last year.

Maryland's proposed regulations for the 2002 season, issued early last month after the state's second worst crab season in modern recordkeeping, would increase the minimum size of peelers, those about to shed their shells, from 3 inches to 3 1/2 inches and of soft crabs from 3 1/2 inches to 4 1/2 inches April 1. The minimum size of hard crabs would go from 5 inches to 5 1/4 inches Aug. 1.

The regulations also would ban the possession of undersized crabs, which would prevent Maryland seafood processors from importing crabs from other states -- Virginia and North Carolina in particular -- where the minimum size remains at 5 inches.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission is to take up a variety of proposals Tuesday, including increasing the minimum sizes for peelers and soft crabs.

Jack Travelstead, Virginia's head fisheries regulator, said last month that the commission is "looking very closely" at increasing the minimum size for peelers and soft crabs, but is unlikely to increase the minimum size for hard crabs because they don't grow as large in the saltier waters of the southern bay as they do in the northern bay.

The Potomac River Fisheries Commission has scheduled a meeting Feb. 28 to consider increasing the minimum sizes for all crabs by a half-inch, shortening the season and reducing the number of pots allowed.

A.C. Carpenter, executive secretary of the commission, said there might be "a difficult adjustment period" for processors when minimum crab sizes are increased, but he recalled "dire predictions" several years ago when minimum sizes for striped bass were increased.

"They said they were all going to go out of business, but as far as I can tell they're still here," he said. "And some new ones, too."

Bob Evans, president of the Anne Arundel County Waterman's Association, said in an interview that commercial crabbers would be "hurt immensely because there are certain times of the year we rely on the picking house market."

"If we lost that market, it's going to hurt us," he said.

But others see the Chesapeake Bay crab processing industry changing anyway.

"We need to wrap our arms around a vision for the future of the crab industry and try to realize that vision," Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said in an interview.

"Given imported crab meat is a growing competitor for the bulk crab market, we do need to reassess and we may end up with a vision that is somewhat different from the way the industry works now."

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