Crabbers reporting a rich early harvest

Watermen question state call for short season

June 19, 2008|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

CRISFIELD - Despite gloomy predictions, watermen have been finding a bounty of crabs so far this season as they work the waters off the lower Eastern Shore.

"Honestly, it's been good right from the beginning - we've been blessed," says John Tull, 47, who docks his boat in a harbor here that's been a haven for watermen since the 1950s.

First came the best run of "peelers" - crabs just about to shed their shells - that Tull's seen in 20 years. Now he's finding a respectable catch of both soft and hard crabs all around Tangier Sound.

Robbie Tyler, who also docks his boat here, caught a whopping 52 bushels Monday. "I've been working on the water since 1996, and it's the best I've seen for this time of year," says Tyler, 32.

New rules designed to reduce the catch of female crabs don't take effect until fall, so Tyler and others are happy to make what they can now, ensuring a steady supply of crabs through July Fourth and other summer events.

But two months into the season, the early success has many watermen convinced that the state Department of Natural Resources overreacted when it imposed the regulations.

"We tried to tell the DNR that we didn't need this much regulation," says David Dize, another Crisfield crabber. "They're trying to play God. There has actually been a glut of crabs some days. It all depends on Mother Nature - not scientists, not marine biologists, not watermen."

State officials say the bump in supply won't last, and they believe their plan to cut the harvest of spawning females by 34 percent is the recipe for a long-term rebound.

"I can remember a similar run in 2004, but it was a very short and localized event that didn't herald a return of the crab population," says Lynn W. Fegley, who supervises the state's blue crab program at the Department of Natural Resources.

"We're not disputing that it's been a good spring. I'm very happy for them, but it looks patchy, very patchy," she said.

The rules, approved May 22, mean the season for catching females will end Oct. 23, about two months early, eliminating what has traditionally been the busiest portion of the season for watermen and crab-processing companies in Dorchester County and the lower Eastern Shore.

"They call them emergency regulations, but I just don't see no state of emergency," says Tyler. He built a new house last year "not knowing this was coming," and now he worries about providing for his wife and 2 1/2 -year-old son when his income is cut off in the fall.

Maryland and Virginia agreed in April to take immediate steps to reduce by a third the amount of female blue crabs harvested from the Chesapeake Bay, an unprecedented joint effort to boost the population of the bay's iconic species

Scientists believe the bay's crab population is dangerously low, about 120 million when there should be 200 million crabs. The estuary has lost perhaps 70 percent of the population in the last 10-15 years, DNR Secretary John Griffin said at a hearing last month in Annapolis. Because there are so few crabs to catch, the harvest has plummeted in recent years.

But commercial fishermen say they have a right to question the wisdom of DNR scientists, who shrugged off their protests before installing rules aimed at cutting the female crab harvest. 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.

Many watermen say they have little faith in DNR's winter dredge survey, which the agency says it has used to predict the number of crabs likely to be in the bay each year for almost two decades.

Throughout each winter, researchers sample the muddy bottom for hibernating crabs in 1,500 locations around the estuary, information that allows wide-ranging predictions about the bay's population.

In warmer months, the agency conducts trawl surveys and gets on-site observer reports from a team of about 40 watermen,

Watermen such as Jack Howard, 57, who with a partner has been catching both hard- and soft-shell crabs since peelers have slackened, says residents depend on years of experience to locate crabs.

"I don't believe you can base the number of crabs you'll have in summer by the number you survey in winter," says Howard. "They seem to go places where there's never been a crab. You don't go in a corn field and find strawberries."

Fegley bristles at the suggestion that DNR scientists spend most of their time desk-bound in Annapolis. "We are out on the bay 365 days," Fegley says. "Scientists get paid for working on the water, too."

Scientists are a bit baffled by the peeler run, but they suspect that the surge in molting crabs was confined to a relatively limited area where water temperatures were warm enough to get the crabs moving.

Whatever the reason, Fegley says it is unlikely that the peeler run signals a long-term pattern.

Michael Kemp, a researcher at the University of Maryland's Horn Point lab near Cambridge, said the Choptank River showed unusual clarity through much of May, conditions that might also have been a factor in the peeler run farther south around Crisfield.

"Now that the temperatures have started going up, I'm afraid we'll start to see less clarity," says Kemp.

Some watermen have turned away from crabbing, moving instead to rockfish and other fish whose population seems more stable. Others fish for whatever is available - a route many might try when crab restrictions begin.

"With crab restrictions, it'll put more pressure on what few oysters we have left," says Tull. "You've got to do something to make a living."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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