A legislative oversight committee approved tough new regulations yesterday aimed at restoring the Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population by significantly cutting the harvest of female crabs.
The rules - approved over the protests of watermen and Eastern Shore lawmakers - mean the season for females will end Oct. 23, about two months early. The rules also impose limits on how many bushels of females watermen can catch. State officials said they had no choice but to impose stiff measures because the crab population has fallen precipitously.
"There is no doubt that this iconic symbol of the bay is in trouble," said state Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin. Reducing the harvest of female crabs by a third "is the best chance for a quick recovery."
The governors of Maryland and Virginia announced last month that they would work together to cut the harvest, marking the first time the two states have cooperated in such a large-scale effort to halt a slide in the population of the estuary's signature species.
Two dozen watermen and seafood industry owners looked on as the Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee voted 10-2 to approve the rules proposed by Griffin's agency.
Those who depend on crabbing to make a living have argued that state officials should focus instead on pollution that has destroyed habitat for the crabs.
"The biggest problem isn't what man is taking out of the bay - it's what man is putting in the bay," said Jack Brooks, whose family owns Dorchester County's largest crab-processing house. "We need a clean bay that's a hospitable place for these creatures to grow."
State officials acknowledge that the restrictions will disproportionately affect watermen and crab processors from Dorchester County on the Lower Shore, where October and November are traditionally the busiest part of the season as watermen harvest pregnant female crabs swimming south.
State officials have set aside $3 million that can be used to hire watermen for other jobs on the bay to make up for lost crabbing income.
Gov. Martin O'Malley also has asked the U.S. commerce secretary to declare the Chesapeake Bay's blue crab fishery a federal disaster, a move that officials hope will generate $15 million to create jobs for watermen.
If it is granted, the designation would mark the first time that a Chesapeake Bay industry has been declared a federal disaster.
"We have some serious concerns in Dorchester County," said Del. Adelaide C. Eckardt, a Dorchester County Republican who voted against the regulatory changes. "It seems to me that in terms of economic impact, it's kind of like the horse is out of the barn."
State officials believe that the regulations will protect 10 million to 15 million female crabs, allowing them to reproduce.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, urged lawmakers to consider ending the restrictions after this season.
"We may be able to survive this year," Simns said. "But we can't last for three to five years."
Crabbing is one of the bay's few surviving commercial fisheries. About a thousand watermen in Maryland earn all or part of their living on the water, state records show.
Many more people in the region work for businesses connected to crabbing, such as seafood processors, restaurants and marinas.