Hoping to revive a signature species of the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland natural resources officials say they will impose rules to reduce the harvest of female blue crabs by 20 percent to 40 percent -- a cut some watermen say would put them out of business.
The Department of Natural Resources outlined several options yesterday for achieving the reduction. One proposal would limit the catch of female crabs to seven bushels a day per boat during six months of the season.
"Seven bushels? You've got to be kidding me," said Greg Wilson, a longtime waterman who crabs from Tilghman Island. Under those limits, he said, he won't recoup the money he spends on bait, fuel and labor. "As a trotliner, I'm out of business."
But state officials say it is necessary to sharply cut the harvest because the crab population has plummeted.
"We know that, biologically, we need to focus our efforts on females," said Lynn Fegley, a director with the department's fisheries service. "If you can jack up the abundance of spawning females, you will maximize your odds of getting a good influx of crabs into the bay."
Female blue crabs make up about half the harvest in Maryland's portion of the bay and most of it in Virginia's.
Officials stressed that they have not decided which rules to impose and hope to receive feedback at a meeting tonight.
Crabbing is one of the bay's few surviving commercial fisheries. About a thousand watermen in the state earn all or part of their living on the water. Many more people in the region work for businesses connected to crabbing -- seafood processors, restaurants and marinas.
Last year's crab harvest in the Maryland part of the bay and its rivers was just under 22 million pounds -- the lowest in three decades.
Since September, when Fegley warned that the annual winter dredge survey showed that the crab population was severely depleted, watermen have been bracing for new rules. Fegley and Assistant Natural Resources Secretary Frank Dawson have been traveling around the state to discuss possible restrictions.
Options mentioned previously include a two-week ban on catching soft crabs, a daily bushel limit for males and females and barring the catch of female crabs larger than 6.5 inches so bigger crabs could reproduce.
The proposals made distinctions between crabbers who use pots in the bay and those who use trotlines in the rivers.
But yesterday's proposals go further. Officials have added a possible ban on catching any female crabs for two weeks in October, when females are plentiful.
And where the agency previously proposed an overall limit of 18 to 25 bushels from April through September, it now proposes a quota of seven bushels for female crabs -- a far stiffer restriction.
Watermen say the proposals would hit crab potters the hardest. They can spend $200 a day on fuel because they go far into the bay. Add $200 for bait and pots and $300 for a mate or two and crabbing will cost them money, Wilson said.
Smith Island crab potter Dwight Marshall said that on a good day, if he catches 100 bushels, about 75 percent are females. In the fall, it's almost 100 percent.
Marshall is worried about a two-week closure of the fishery, particularly because full-time crabbers have to work every possible hour to save money for winter, when there's no work.
"We didn't think it was going to be this drastic," he said. "When [the proposal] hits the airwaves, I imagine it'll be like a firecracker."
State officials say they need to analyze results of the winter dredge survey, which gives an accurate count of how many crabs are in the bay, before making final decisions. A final proposal could come at the end of this month, with regulations in place by late summer. The crab season opened April 1.
Maryland and Virginia last imposed restrictions in 2002, when the crab population appeared in free-fall. With a goal of reducing the total harvest by 15 percent, Virginia created a sanctuary for spawning females and Maryland shortened the crabbers' day and required them to take off one day a week. But the population did not bounce back.
Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which advises both states, said she is "very concerned" about a bushel limit's impact on full-time watermen. She said Maryland should make sure it protects male crabs. But she said the proposal reflects the need to act quickly.
"This is a short-term Band-Aid; it's an effort to try to stop the bleeding," she said. "We still need to look at a long-term management solution."
Those involved in crab management say Maryland and Virginia have not always followed through on protecting crabs in the long term. The Bi-State Blue Crab Commission, a group of researchers, watermen, legislators and environmentalists, was supposed to advise the states on crab management earlier this decade but disbanded when both states stopped funding it.
Last time, the two states were trying to "hold the line so they could begin deliberations on longer-term restructuring. But they never got to that part," said William Goldsborough, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Dawson vowed that wouldn't happen again.
"We have brought together what is our best recommendations on how we can better conserve blue crabs," he said. "Whether or not we've done enough will be for other people to decide."