Harvest pinched

Crab Catch Moratorium

October 18, 2008|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

RUMBLEY - Dawn isn't even a rumor in the east when the Barbara J pulls away from the dock in this tiny watermen's village on the lower Eastern Shore. With his helpers napping in bunks below, Mark Somers pilots his sleek 45-foot workboat through the darkness into the Chesapeake Bay. His only companion for now is Max, a Jack Russell terrier curled up under a table in the cabin.

It promises to be sunny and warm - not ideal for catching crabs in the fall. "You want it blowing hard and cool," Somers says.

But he needs to be crabbing this day because it's shaping up to be a bitter harvest - cut short by government regulations. In an attempt to rebuild what scientists say is a perilously low population of blue crabs in the bay, state officials have decreed that female crabs may not be caught after Oct. 22.

With "sooks," or females, making up 90 percent or more of his catch this time of year, Somers says the rule will force him to stop working just as the seasonal migration of crabs down the bay reaches its peak. There won't be enough male crabs to make it worth his while to continue.

"They take and they never give back," Somers complains of government's increasingly restrictive fishing regulations.

Most years, in five or six weeks of hard work up until around Thanksgiving, Somers says, he can make a third of his annual income, fishing hundreds of submerged crab traps or "pots" strung out across miles of open water. This year, he is out before the crabs are migrating en masse because he wants to recoup a little of what he's about to lose. His expenses don't stop, he points out, including payments on the workboat named for his wife that he had built last year.

Natural resource officials acknowledge the harvest restrictions impose a hardship on watermen, especially those like Somers in the lower bay, for whom catching crabs in the fall is a staple of their livelihood. But annual surveys have indicated the bay's crab population has been depressed for years and was in jeopardy of declining even more. So Maryland and Virginia agreed to reduce the harvest of female crabs by one-third. To rebuild the stock, officials said, it was necessary to curtail the catching of females so more of them could survive to bear their young.

"We're not in the business of putting watermen out of business," says Frank Dawson, an assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "We're about providing a sustainable stock for a sustainable [seafood] industry." But sometimes, he says, "you don't do that without pain."

The normally uneasy relationship between those who fish for a living and those who regulate them to protect the fish has become especially fractious this year. Watermen contend that state biologists in Maryland suppressed the results of their annual winter survey of bay crabs until after the state had settled on its catch restrictions. That survey showed an increase in juvenile crabs, an abundance watermen say they saw through spring and summer.

"What it does is make watermen not trust anything the department does," says Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

State officials deny keeping anything from the watermen. While juveniles were up, last winter's count showed a "dangerously low" population of spawning-age crabs, says Lynn Fegley, a state fisheries biologist. That reinforced a belief that action was needed to reduce the female catch. Maryland coordinated its crabbing restrictions with Virginia, which is banning the catching of females after Oct. 26 in its part of the bay. Virginia also is eliminating its winter crab season, when watermen dredge the slumbering creatures - mostly females - from the bottom.

Officials say it's too soon to say whether the new rules are working. Virginia's marine resources agency reports a significantly reduced catch through July, but the harvest reported by Maryland watermen was actually higher than at the same time last year. State officials caution that the reports are incomplete, and they're checking the accuracy because the numbers don't seem to square with what they've seen and heard around the bay.

Simns believes the harvest baywide is off. Other factors are hurting the watermen as well, he says. Cash-strapped consumers are buying less crabmeat. And crabmeat processors have been unable to get enough immigrant laborers, so they've cut back how many bushels of crabs they buy from watermen.

"We're not saying we still don't need to do anything," Simns says of the catch restrictions. "We're arguing about how they went about it."

State officials say they had few choices this year for reducing the female catch but are willing to consider other measures next year.

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