Chesapeake Bay blue crabs are in serious danger of being over-fished this year and are not reproducing well enough to rebound from the kind of pressure being placed on them, Maryland natural resources officials say.
Rather than impose regulations to deal with the possible crisis, the Department of Natural Resources is asking watermen for their help in figuring out a solution. Officials say they want to find a way to sustain a healthy population of the Maryland crustaceans and a robust crabbing industry, one of the state's last viable fisheries.
"The goal is to keep the crab fishery in business, and the goal here is to think of some way to do that," Lynn Fegley, fishery operations director at the DNR, told a group of watermen at a meeting Thursday night. "I don't think you guys want the State House doing it for you."
The concern comes from the results of the dredge survey, which counts crabs in the bay during the winter, when they burrow into the bottom and are easy to see. The survey, which is considered an accurate depiction of what is living in the bay, found the second-lowest number of juvenile crabs since the state began counting in 1989.
Based on the department's estimates of the number of crabbers who are working and how many crabs they catch, Fegley estimated that the combined Maryland and Virginia harvest for this year will be about 48.7 million pounds. That is about the same number as last year but, given the small number of juveniles, exceeds the department's over-fishing threshold by about 10 percent.
"That's cause for deep concern," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which helped to enact crab restrictions in both states seven years ago. "Our very best scientists should be assigned to the case. The blue crab is, without debate, one of the Chesapeake's finest resources, so to put our icon in jeopardy would be crazy."
Maryland officials stressed that the information is preliminary and intended as a warning to watermen in hopes of avoiding a situation like the one the bay faced in 2000, when the crab population seemed to be in free-fall.
Amid bitter complaints from watermen, Maryland and Virginia implemented restrictions. Virginia created a sanctuary for spawning females, and Maryland shortened the crabbers' day to eight hours and required them to take one day a week off.
Natural resources officials said in interviews yesterday that they are not planning any immediate regulatory action, and they declined to speculate on any new restrictions.
"We really would have to watch it play out. We can't regulate ahead of the game," said Gina Hunt, assistant director of fisheries. "We don't want to be in the position we were in a few years ago."
Swanson said restrictions imposed in 2001 were crucial in stemming a major crab decline but did not spur the hoped-for rebound. She said the state could consider protecting the female crabs' migratory corridor or creating a sanctuary for males in the northern bay, although DNR officials have given no indication that they have plans for either.
The two dozen or so watermen who attended Thursday's meeting of the Tidal Fish Advisory Commission, which meets regularly to discuss fishing regulations, met Fegley's report with silence.
For some watermen, the last few seasons have been so dismal that they have stopped crabbing altogether, unable to keep up with high fuel costs and expensive boat maintenance.
Others wondered what the information means, given the dry weather, the dwindling number of working crabbers and the watermen's assertions that they had seen plenty of juvenile crabs when the season began.
Several watermen acknowledged that the survey is generally a good one and that they should consider their options before restrictions are imposed on them.
"What [Fegley] is saying is that we've got to keep an eye on where we are," said Russell Dize, a Talbot County crabber who helped draft the 2001 restrictions. "I think you have to let regulations play out for a right good time before passing more."
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said he agrees with Fegley that it is better to work with the state to solve the problem than to have more restrictions placed on the watermen.
"We as watermen and the DNR have an obligation here," Simns said. "If we wait until something happens, fixing it after the fact is disastrous to us."