State to loosen limits on crabbing

Rules would allow harvest of smaller sizes until Aug.

DNR to unveil regulations today

March 14, 2003|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Making good on a campaign pledge to look out for Maryland's watermen, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration plans to ease crabbing restrictions imposed by his predecessor to protect Chesapeake Bay's beleaguered blue crabs.

The Department of Natural Resources is scheduled to unveil emergency regulations today that would allow watermen to take smaller crabs for the first half of the season, which begins April 1.

The proposal -- outlined in a private briefing yesterday to legislators and others -- was welcomed by watermen and seafood industry officials, who had complained that last year's restrictions severely hurt their livelihoods.

"We're trying to save the resource without killing the crabber," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. He noted that crabbers had asked the state for even more relief.

But DNR's plan was roundly criticized by environmentalists, who said that while some slight easing of catch limits might be warranted, the Ehrlich administration is going too far at a time when scientists say the bay's crab population remains in danger of collapsing.

"If we don't protect the existing population, there aren't going to be any crabs for anyone to fish or anybody to eat," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and one of the General Assembly's leading environmentalists.

DNR officials declined to comment on the proposal, which is subject to review by a joint legislative committee.

Commercial blue crab harvests from Maryland's portion of the bay have dwindled from 55 million pounds in 1993 to a low of 20 million pounds in 2000. Last year, the catch was nearly 24 million pounds, still well below average.

With scientists warning that the bay's crab population is overfished, Gov. Parris N. Glendening imposed strict new limits on crabbing last year, increasing the minimum catchable size for hard crabs, soft-shell crabs and "peelers," crabs about to shed their shells.

Those restrictions, in addition to cutbacks the year before on crabbers' hours and workweek, left many fuming. Some Lower Bay crabbers contend that their catch last year declined by 40 percent.

The Glendening administration rules were meant to live up to an agreement between Maryland and Virginia to reduce the overall catch by 15 percent, allowing more crabs to live long enough to reproduce and rebuild the population.

But those rules would have curtailed the harvest more this year, by about 17 percent. That prompted DNR officials to look for ways to ease the hardship on watermen. The new proposal would let watermen catch:

Hard crabs as small as 5 inches across until Aug. 1, when the minimum size would return to 5 1/4 inches;

Soft-shell crabs and peelers as small as 3 1/4 inches until Aug. 1, after which peelers would have to be at least 3 1/2 inches across and soft crabs at least 4 inches.

The agency plans to require watermen to take other steps to limit their catch, including taking two days off in November, toward the end of the season.

But DNR officials acknowledged that the net effect of the crabbing regulations they propose would reduce the harvest by only 14.6 percent -- short of the cutback recommended by scientists and agreed upon with Virginia.

"It sends the wrong message to our partners in Virginia," said Theresa Pierno, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "At this point, there's no information that we should be relaxing our regulations."

But lawmakers representing watermen insisted environmentalists were overreacting.

"The purist is going to squawk, but the realist is going to say, `My gosh, we are at 15 percent for practical purposes,'" said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican. "Is a few tenths of a percentage point worth harming the economic viability of the watermen?"

Stoltzfus, who is the Senate minority leader, said the administration proposal will go a long way toward improving the crabbing industry, particularly in the southern part of the bay, where crabs are smaller.

"Last year we overstepped, and this brings it back," he said.

Sun staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this article.

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