Maryland authorities were set to announce tough new restrictions today on the harvest of blue crabs during the coming season.
But, as part of a series of compromises with the crabmeat industry, the state has backed away from a proposed limit on importing out-of-state crabs that business owners contended would ruin them.
The new regulations, which take effect April 1, will increase the minimum sizes for male hard crabs, soft-shell crabs and "peelers" that can be caught legally by commercial and recreational crabbers.
The rules also would ban the possession of egg-bearing female, or "sponge," crabs and reduce the number of undersized crabs allowed per bushel caught.
J. Charles "Chuck" Fox, secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources, said the new rules are vital to ensure that the crab population in the Chesapeake Bay can rebound from some of the smallest harvests in history.
"We want to make sure that watermen have crabs to catch in the future, not just crabs to catch this year," he said.
But spokesmen for the crabbers and the processing plants said the restrictions mean there will be fewer of them in business after this year to put those crabs on the table - even with the state backing off from a few of its proposed limits.
"Maryland is trying to put the watermen and a lot of crab processors out of business," said J.C. Tolley, owner of Meredith & Meredith Seafood, a processor in Dorchester County. "It's really gonna hurt us."
Overall, the changes are expected to reduce this year's crabbing "effort" by about 15 percent compared with 2000, a goal that Maryland and Virginia both agreed upon in a bid to give the bay's depressed crab population a chance to rebound.
The new rules will cut the Maryland crabbing effort by more than 17 percent in 2003, enough to double the number of crabs left in the bay to spawn, according to scientists, and also give the population a "buffer" against other uncertainties.
As a result, officials said they do not expect to impose any more restrictions next year.
Fox said industry representatives and others with a stake in the issue will be named to a new blue crab task force this spring. The panel will study the environmental, biological, social and economic issues facing the industry, and report by the summer of 2003.
The new crabbing restrictions add to cutbacks imposed last year that limited the number of days and hours watermen could work. Those curbs provoked an outcry - and an unsuccessful lawsuit - from crabbers who felt harvest cutbacks were not needed.
Fisheries managers say the restrictions are needed to take harvesting pressure off the species. Blue crab harvests have fallen from 55 million pounds in 1993 to a low of 20.2 million pounds in 2000. The 2001 catch improved slightly, to 20.5 million pounds - the second-smallest on record.
The new DNR rules will raise the minimum size on male hard crabs from 5 inches to 5 1/4 inches.
In a compromise, the DNR scrapped a proposed ban on possession of smaller hard crabs caught legally in other states. Instead, Maryland will allow processors to import crabs 5 inches and larger, "minimizing the impact on them by two-thirds," Fox said.
The new rules set a 3 1/2 -inch limit on "peeler" crabs and a 4-inch minimum for soft-shell crabs.
The state retreated on its proposed 4 1/4 -inch limit for soft crabs after biologists said some peelers - crabs that shed their shells to become soft crabs - don't reach 4 1/4 inches when finished molting.
In other changes, the state:
Extended the 2002 crabbing season, which begins April 1, to Dec. 15 - two weeks longer than normal. Last year, the season closed Oct. 31.
Eased some workday limits imposed last year, allowing trotline and "scraper" crabbers to work two more hours per day.
Cut the "tolerance" for undersized crabs found in each bushel from 10 to five for hard crabs, and from 30 to 10 for peelers.
Fox said the changes should reduce the harvest, but larger crabs will also bring higher prices.
"It is unclear what the overall effect of this rule will be on the bottom-line pocketbooks of watermen," he said.
He also said the rules are likely to have "some impact" on the crab-picking industry, "but it is not likely to be substantial."
While the state's crabmeat processors might have been spared for now by the state's decision not to ban possession of 5-inch to 5 1/4 -inch crabs - which can be caught legally in Virginia and other states - Tolley said the compromise will hurt Maryland's watermen.
"They're gonna allow us as Maryland dealers to bring in 5-inch crabs from any other state, but not let Maryland crabbers catch them," he said. "It's not fair to Maryland watermen. The watermen are very upset; they see their livelihood slipping away."
Tolley said his industry's future remains doubtful, despite the easing of the proposed ban on 5-inch crabs from elsewhere.
Crabs trucked in from out-of-state aren't as fresh, and shipping costs make them more expensive, he said. At the same time, processors are squeezed by competition from cheap crabmeat imported from foreign countries.