The cost of conservation

Crabs: Virginia, with its looser policy on egg-bearing females, is enjoying a glut of the crustaceans - while Maryland's picking houses sit idle.

May 21, 2002|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

TODDVILLE - A new regulation that bans Maryland seafood processors from importing egg-bearing female crabs has virtually idled the state's 30 or so crab-picking houses, while producing a "windfall" for their Virginia counterparts, industry leaders say.

"I've been working here since 1958, and this is the worst I've ever seen it," said Peggy Pritchett, 61, office manager at Meredith & Meredith Seafood Co., one of the largest picking houses in Dorchester County, where most of the industry is concentrated.

The ban on egg-bearing females from out of state was one of several new restrictions imposed on watermen and crab processors in the spring, as fishery managers in Maryland and Virginia try to reduce the Chesapeake Bay blue crab harvest by 15 percent.

Scientists say the blue crab, which for decades has been the most important commercial species in the bay, is being overfished, and the population is in danger of collapsing.

Maryland officials decided the ban on out-of-state "sponge crabs" - so named because the females carry spongy clumps of eggs attached to their shells - would help protect the species, although they couldn't estimate the impact on the overall catch. Maryland bans catching sponge crabs, but Virginia allows their harvest until the eggs are almost ready to hatch.

Eric Schwaab, director of fisheries for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the state has "anecdotal information" that the sponge-crab ban has helped conserve crabs.

But seafood processors in the bay states disagree.

The Maryland crab processors say they can't get any crabs to pick, because the males fetch a much higher price when sold whole to restaurants and seafood markets, and virtually all the East Coast's adult females are laden with eggs at this time of year. The processors say business is down about 80 percent, with some plants working only two or three half-days this month.

"We're getting hit with a real big whammy," said Jack Brooks, owner of J.M. Clayton Seafood in Cambridge. "Essentially, our plants are sitting idle but the crabs are still coming out of the water" in Virginia.

In Hampton, Va., processor John B. Graham III said he has had so many crabs to pick that "we dumped the prices and got rid of the meat." The glut in Virginia, he said, is due in part to better-than-usual catches at the start of the season, which opened in April. But, he said, it's mostly because the Maryland sponge-crab ban forces Virginia watermen to sell their catch locally, and drives down the price.

"It's a huge windfall, huge," said Graham, owner of Graham and Rollins Seafood. He said some Maryland picking houses are so desperate to hold onto their customers that they have bought his crabmeat - mostly from sponge crabs - and repackaged it.

Seafood dealers, scientists and regulators agree that over the short term, the crab catch is hard to predict, depending on such factors as water temperatures, winds and a complicated market.

The season usually gets off to a slow start in Maryland as female crabs, cued by rising water temperatures, spawn near their Virginia wintering grounds and move slowly up the bay. In early May, seafood processors say, Maryland picking houses usually run three days a week, relying on out-of-state crabs.

Meredith & Meredith's 30 crab pickers - all of them local women - are collecting unemployment benefits, which last a maximum of 26 weeks a year. The crab houses used to provide year-round work, said veteran picker Evelyn Robinson, 59, but in recent years many workers have used up their benefits before year's end.

A good crab picker can earn about $500 a week, Robinson said. Unemployment benefits run about $200.

"Our unemployment is going to affect our churches and our stores and our whole community," said Meredith & Meredith worker Betty Tall, 69.

The Maryland processors said they asked DNR Secretary J. Charles Fox to lift the ban on out-of-state sponge crabs.

"He considered it," Brooks said, "and said he really could not see how he could do it."

"The line from DNR is, `Well, hang on for four or five years and there'll be plenty of crabs,'" said J.C. Tolley, owner of Meredith & Meredith. "Well, in four or five years, we won't have employees, we won't have customers and we won't have bank accounts."

Fox said the DNR based its regulations in part on a survey of the picking houses, which showed that sponge crabs accounted for 13 percent of their supply in May, and an increasing percentage as the summer went on.

"I haven't seen any specific data that suggests to me that Maryland's ban on the possession of sponge crabs is the most serious issue affecting this industry," Fox said.

Fox said the picking houses' biggest complaint as the regulations were being drafted was a proposed increase in the crabs' minimum legal size. He said the agency delayed the boost in the legal limit from 5 inches to 5 1/4 inches until August, in part at the seafood processors' request.

"The sponge-crab possession limit was not a priority of theirs," Fox said.

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