Md. asks disaster status for crab

O'Malley seeks U.S. aid to provide jobs for watermen while industry recovers

May 03, 2008|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun reporter

Gov. Martin O'Malley has asked the U.S. commerce secretary to declare the Chesapeake Bay's blue crab fishery a federal disaster, a move officials hope will generate $15 million to create jobs for watermen.

If granted, the designation would mark the first time that a Chesapeake Bay industry has been declared a federal disaster, state officials said.

"We will keep our watermen working on things that bring back the bay while we are waiting for [the crab] population to rebound," O'Malley said yesterday in Fells Point. Jobs the state could offer include restoring oyster reefs, which are key habitat for crabs and small fish, and possibly launching aquaculture projects, officials said.

The number of blue crabs in the bay has fallen so sharply that Maryland and Virginia moved last month to reduce the harvest of female crabs by a third. The harvest restrictions are expected to significantly hurt watermen's ability to earn a living - particularly on the Lower Eastern Shore, home to the state's remaining crab-picking houses.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine is also seeking federal assistance for his state. Disaster declarations have been issued in other places where commercial fishermen have lost work, including the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, but they are not always granted.

Last year, Massachusetts asked for a disaster declaration after federal regulations devastated New England's fishing industry. The request was initially rejected, but it was granted several months later after lobbying by the state's congressional delegation.

Officials said O'Malley's letter to Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez is the first step in a multilevel effort to acquire funds to help crabbers, some of whom are expected to lose about a third of their yearly income. U.S. Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski pledged to work within Congress to expedite the funds so that money would be available by fall, when the season for harvesting female crabs will close seven weeks early.

The federal money would be added to the $3 million O'Malley put into the state budget for watermen's work programs. Because the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has estimated that the restrictions could be in place for three years, Mikulski said she is hoping the state will receive $5 million for each year.

"We want to save our crabs, save our watermen and save our Maryland way of life," she said. "In order to bring back the crab, we need a breather. But while we do that, we want our watermen to work."

Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin, who was with the department during the five-year rockfish moratorium in the 1980s, said watermen did important work then to help scientists assess the species' health. But that work was on a much smaller scale than what is envisioned this time, Griffin said.

Doug Siglin, federal affairs director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, estimates that states have received federal disaster aid for fishing-related hardships 22 times. Siglin expects Maryland and Virginia to succeed in their current efforts, in large part because Mikulski chairs the subcommittee that oversees the Commerce Department's budget. The foundation will also be pushing for it, he said.

"What the secretary has to do is make a determination, one way or the other, that a disaster has occurred - either a natural disaster or a man-made disaster - and we're confident that he will do that," Siglin said.

Yesterday, O'Malley credited Mikulski for leading the effort, saying the senator "has always had a soft spot in her heart for watermen." For the past three years, Mikulski has led the push to help the Eastern Shore's crab-processing houses secure visas for foreign workers who pick crab meat.

Since 2002, she has secured more than $10 million for the nonprofit Oyster Recovery Partnership, which has planted millions of oysters in the bay, many of which watermen have been allowed to harvest and sell. Some scientists have questioned the wisdom of the program.

"She's our angel. She looks out for us," said Russell Dize, a Tilghman Island waterman.

After hearing last month about the $3 million in the state budget, several watermen said they didn't want state charity. But Dize said he thinks watermen would benefit from both the state and the federal aid.

"I think we can put some people to work, and they can do some good for the environment, which the Chesapeake Bay really needs," he said. "We weren't asking for a handout. We want to work for it. As long as it's work, they won't feel too proud to take it."

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

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