CAMBRIDGE - Nearly 200 watermen packed the pavilion at Sailwinds Park last night to hear details of new harvest rules that they fear will ruin commercial fishermen whose business depends in large part on catching female blue crabs, the Chesapeake Bay's signature fishery.
The number of crabs has dropped so sharply that Maryland and Virginia imposed restrictions last month that are aimed at reducing the annual harvest of females by one-third.
About half of the blue crabs harvested in Maryland waters are females, officials say, and many are caught in warm fall waters.
"What they're proposing to do to us would be like asking Ocean City to give up July, their prime time," said Cambridge seafood processor Jack Brooks. "That's the equivalent of what will happen to us if they close us out of October and November."
Watermen from the Bay Bridge to Tangier Sound say catch limits and an Oct. 23 end to harvesting females are more than they can financially bear because they'll miss the annual southern migration of females to spawn. Companies that pick, can and freeze crab meat worry that they'll lose customers to foreign competitors.
Each state has petitioned federal authorities to declare the fishery a disaster, which could free $15 million to create jobs for watermen in fishing communities that are facing severe economic hardship.
Local economies are dependent on an abundant fall harvest, and watermen and crab processors say Dorchester County could be hit hardest because most of Maryland's crab-picking operations are there.
"For processors, there won't be enough crabs when we need them the most," said County Councilman Jay Newcomb, who manages a picking house on Hoopers Island. "With us and Virginia out of the picture, prices will just go sky-high."
State officials say the final decision on the emergency regulations will fall to the Administrative Executive Legislative Review Committee, which has scheduled a hearing in Annapolis for May 22.