Ehrlich's proposal to ease crabbing limits toughened

But new rules still allow watermen larger catch

April 01, 2003|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Bowing to pressure from environmentalists, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration yesterday altered its plans to relax crabbing restrictions on the Chesapeake Bay.

The new restrictions, which take effect today, ease the regulations imposed last year by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, but not by as much as Ehrlich had wanted.

The administration modified the proposal after legislators and environmentalists said the original plan failed to live up to an agreement between Maryland and Virginia to reduce the harvest by 15 percent this year.

Ehrlich's initial proposal would have reduced the harvest by 14.6 percent.

"If we go backward, it hurts everyone, and I don' t think anyone wants there to be no crab market in the bay," said Del. John F. Wood Jr., a St. Mary's County Democrat who is co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review.

Wood's committee approved the new regulations yesterday only after the Department of Natural Resources came up with a formula that achieves a 15.2 percent reduction in the harvest -- a plan that won the reluctant endorsement of both watermen and environmentalists.

"We are trying to be fair and looking for balance," said Theresa Pierno, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The new regulations allow watermen to catch hard crabs as small as 5 inches until July 15, when the minimum size would return to 5 1/4 inches. Watermen could catch peeler crabs as small as 3 1/4 inches until the same date, after which the minimum size returns to 3 1/2 inches.

A season-long 3 1/2 -inch minimum size limit for soft shell crabs was also set.

The limits are designed to halt a steady decline in the blue crab population. Annual harvests have dropped from 55 million pounds in 1993 to 20.2 million pounds in 2000. That year, Maryland and Virginia reached an agreement to reduce the crab harvest by 15 percent in 2003. But Glendening successfully implemented the agreement in two years; if left intact, his regulations would have reduced the harvest by more than 17 percent this year.

Watermen, who heavily backed Ehrlich during last year's campaign, had complained that Glendening's restrictions went too far. In some cases, watermen said they lost 40 percent of their income last year because of the restrictions.

Dozens of watermen packed the committee room to plead for more lenient restrictions.

"If [Ehrlich's] regulations don't pass, it will devastate our ability to provide decent and respectable living conditions for my family," said Roy Meredith, president of the Atlantic and Coastal Bays Waterman's Coalition. "You will force me into poverty and onto welfare."

DNR Secretary C. Ronald Franks said he hopes everyone is pleased with the new regulations. "We have a lot of different people with a lot of different interests, but we all want the industry to survive," Franks said.

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