Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is preparing to loosen the strict limits on crabbing imposed by his predecessor, a move that is drawing praise from watermen but the ire of some environmentalists.
The Department of Natural Resources is considering several options for revising the previous regulations -- designed to save Maryland's blue crab population -- by possibly allowing watermen to catch smaller crabs or extending the hours they can work.
The final recommendation could come as early as next week to allow the DNR and waterman time to prepare for the official start of the crabbing season April 1.
"We are looking for a way we can relax the regulations and provide benefit to the watermen," said John A. Surrick, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources.
But the Senate's leading environmentalist is outraged by suggestions the administration is about to slacken crabbing restrictions.
"The crab population is teetering on the edge of extinction, and no one really knows how hard we can hit this population before it can't come back," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "I fear by expanding the catch, we are really playing Russian roulette."
Blue crab harvests from the bay have dropped from 55 million pounds in 1993 to 20.2 million pounds in 2000.
Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening imposed the restrictions last year as he tried to make Maryland a leader in the effort to increase the number of crabs in the bay.
The agreement between Maryland and Virginia was reached in 2000 to reduce the Chesapeake Bay crab harvest by 15 percent in 2003. But Glendening, concerned about the bay's crab population, successfully implemented the agreement in just two years.
In 2001, the former governor barred watermen from harvesting in November and restricted them to a six-day week and, in most cases, an 8-hour workday.
Last year, Maryland restricted waterman to 8-hour workdays and imposed a 5 1/4 -inch minimum size on male hard crabs caught after Aug. 1. A soft crab had to be 4 inches before it could be caught.
But watermen, who heavily backed Ehrlich during the campaign, and Eastern Shore legislators cried foul, saying in some cases the restrictions resulted in a 40 percent loss of crabbers' income.
"We are hopeful they are going to give us some leeway," said Capt. Bob Newberry, 45, a fisherman from Crumpton who lobbies on behalf of watermen.
DNR Secretary C. Ronald Franks and his staff have been meeting with legislators, watermen and environmentalists as they prepare to decide what the new restrictions will be.
DNR believes the current restrictions are too severe because, if left in place, the crab harvest would be reduced by 17.7 percent this year, 2.7 percent more than required by the agreement.
"We have a little bit of area in which we can look to make some adjustments," Surrick said. "The question is what kind of adjustments do we need and how can we tailor those adjustments to provide as much benefit to as many people as possible."
Test of DNR leader
The issue represents the first real test of Franks' leadership at DNR as he juggles environmentalists' concerns with the troubles of watermen, who are split over the best course of action.
Watermen in the southern portion of the bay generally want lower limits because crabs are traditionally smaller there. In the northern part -- where crabs are larger -- watermen prefer a lengthened workday.
While balancing those concerns, Franks and Ehrlich must also try to maintain the 15 percent harvest reduction outlined in the agreement.
Earlier this month, DNR put out a list of possible options and the reduction each suggestion would achieve.
Reducing the size limits across the bay to 5 inches would result in a 14.8 percent reduction from 2000 harvest levels, meaning the state would fall short of the agreement.
But the state would still achieve a 15.1 percent reduction this year if the lower size limits were implemented only in the southern part of the bay, where economic hardship has been greatest
Likewise, reducing the size restrictions on soft crabs to 3.75 inches would result in a 14.9 percent reduction. But if that size reduction were targeted just toward the southern bay, the state would still meet the 15 percent threshold.
If the state decided to keep current size limits in place but allowed crabbers to work an extra hour a day, that would achieve a 15 percent overall reduction, according to DNR estimates.
"It is a much more complicated issue than anyone really anticipated," said Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican. "The bay is a very complicated estuary, and there are no easy solutions."
Pipkin suspects DNR will issue reduced size limits to only the lower part of the bay so the administration reaches the goals of the agreement while still boosting the economies of Somerset, Dorchester and Wicomico counties.
Some watermen are pushing for a more comprehensive, baywide reduction in the size limits. "We just want to make sure whatever they do, the regulations they impose on us are fair across the board," said Kenny Keen, vice president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.
Ehrlich pledged during the campaign to help watermen, but his spokeman said he will listen to all sides before deciding.
"He is going to base it on science," said the governor's spokesman, Paul E. Schurick.