Maryland plans to limit the blue crab catch again next year in hopes of replenishing the Chesapeake Bay's crustaceans, state officials announced yesterday. But they also said they're tweaking the catch rules in an effort to spread the economic pain more evenly among the state's watermen.
The proposed restrictions, drafted in cooperation with Virginia officials, are aimed at maintaining a 34 percent reduction in the catch of female crabs for a second year so they can reproduce.
To protect female crabs, Maryland's Department of Natural Resources plans to set daily limits on how many watermen can catch, and to ban catching females altogether for periods in the spring and fall.
The precise daily catch limits will depend on this winter's survey of the bay's crab population, said Gina Hunt, deputy DNR fisheries director. The results won't be known until April.
The state restricted the female crab harvest after Labor Day and halted it altogether in late October, nearly two months earlier than normal. Scientists said the bay's crab population had fallen to dangerously low levels. So the cutback was ordered to give more egg-bearing females a chance to migrate to the mouth of the Chesapeake, where they spend the winter and produce young in the spring.
But the early halt cost lower bay crabbers, who rely on the fall migration of females for much of their income. The state has pledged to give them work to tide them over, using state and federal funds.
It is unclear how effective this year's crabbing restrictions were. Watermen reported catching more crabs through July than at the same time last year, but DNR officials said those figures didn't square with their own observations. DNR spokeswoman Olivia Campbell said yesterday that state biologists do not have more recent information to release.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said limits outlined by the state for next year seem "way better" for his members than this year's.
In addition to limiting the commercial catch, the state is proposing to require waterfront landowners and other casual crabbers to register with the DNR. Such recreational crabbers have been exempt from having to obtain licenses until now. Registration would be free.
The state has scheduled a public hearing on its proposed crabbing regulations at 6 p.m. Jan. 27 in the Kent Island branch of the Queen Anne's County public library.