Maryland is giving unprecedented one-time payments to some residents who catch blue crabs for a living because the cool, damp spring has left watermen in dire financial shape.
With the water temperature in the Chesapeake Bay running well below normal this year -- causing crabs to be less active -- watermen are reporting distressing harvests, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
Yesterday, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced that up to 800 commercial watermen will be eligible for $500 to help them make ends meet until crabs are more plentiful.
"This is just to get them over the hump," said Mike Slattery, an assistant secretary at DNR. "We are hopeful we are going to still have a decent crab harvest this year, but that remains to be seen."
The payments will come from a federal $1.2 million grant the state is expected to receive later this year. Congress approved the money as part of a $5 million aid package for watermen in five states with declining blue crab harvests.
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.
"Our watermen are hurting," said U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, who was instrumental in getting the aid. "That's why I fought ... for our watermen and their families -- to help them make it through these difficult times."
Though the state will not receive the federal funds for a few more weeks, Slattery said the dismal spring crabbing season is forcing officials to hand out some of the money immediately.
"We have had an uncharacteristically cool April and May, and an unbelievably rainy April and May. And that has kept the bay water temperature down, which has kept crab feeding activity down, which has kept catches down dramatically," Slattery said. He said blue crabs often burrow into the bay's muddy bottom if the water is not warm.
Spring harvest figures were not available last night. Slattery said this is the first time the state has made emergency cash payments to watermen suffering from economic hardship.
Larry Simns, head of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said the money will help the fishermen pay for chores they should have completed weeks ago. "They need to get their boats repaired, and they are not making any money right now," Simns said. "This will help get them started and help them make it through another week or two."