State To Buy Crab Licenses

Maryland Plans To Retire Permits To Protect Fishery

July 10, 2009|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,

Crabbers, name your price. In an unprecedented move to protect Chesapeake Bay crabs, the state is offering to buy back more than half of the commercial crabbing licenses held by Marylanders.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources announced Thursday that it wants to retire up to 3,676 of the "limited crab catcher" licenses it has issued over the years and is willing to pay for them.

The voluntary buyback is the state's most recent bid to protect the bay's iconic crustacean from overfishing as it recovers from a near-disastrous decline. Although the bay's crab population rebounded significantly last year in the wake of stringent restrictions put on commercial crabbing, scientists say it has not fully recovered and remains vulnerable to another drop if people licensed but not now crabbing went out on the water after them.

The state has issued about 6,000 commercial crab licenses, but only about 1,800 are actively fished, according to state officials. If even a portion of the inactive crabbers get back on the water, officials fear, it could undermine the catch restrictions in place to help rebuild the crab population.

But state officials met with resistance this year when they attempted to "freeze" more than 1,000 limited crab catcher licenses that had not reported any catch in the previous five years. The "limited crab catcher" permit, which costs $60 a year, allows holders to fish with up to 50 wire-mesh "pots" or an unlimited amount of baited line and sell their catch.

Those licensees would have been barred from crabbing commercially until the population returned to healthy levels for at least three years in a row. But the inactive crabbers thronged public meetings to protest that they were being punished even though they had not been party to the recent overfishing of the bay's crabs.

Many said they were hanging on to the licenses in hopes that the crab fishery improves, or to supplement their income in retirement or in case they lost their jobs. The licenses are automatically renewable and transferable, so many are given or sold to relatives or friends.

The department mailed letters this week to all license holders, giving them until July 31 to submit bids specifying the amount they would be willing to take for their permits. In what is known as a reverse auction, the state would set a maximum price it would pay, then buy back as many licenses as it can afford, starting with the lowest bids.

George Sliker, 62, of Upper Marlboro said he'd have to think about it before deciding whether to sell back the license he's held for 30 years.

"I was hoping maybe if they managed it right it would [come] back," he said of crabbing. He said he had hoped to earn a little money crabbing in retirement but now doubts that the fishery will ever be robust again.

"I'll have to think about what it's worth to me," he said.

Tom O'Connell, the state fisheries director, said the buyback would be paid for out of $10 million in federal disaster-relief funds the state received last year to help crabbers whose incomes had been hurt by catch restrictions. He declined to say how much the state has allotted for the buyback, saying that the bidding could be skewed if the amount available was known.

O'Connell said the buyback is the first step in a plan to reduce the potential for a big upsurge in crabbing from people who haven't used their licenses in years. State officials still plan to impose restrictions on remaining inactive license holders. Barring them from resuming crabbing until the bay population is healthy remains an option, but license holders might be given the choice of harvesting male crabs only or agreeing to give up the right to transfer their licenses.

"It's just giving people a decision tree," said Lynn Fegley, Maryland's assistant fisheries director. "They can either sell or we'll offer them a path they can take." She stressed that the options remain under review.

Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said he thinks the buyback plan is better than the state's bid to freeze unused licenses. But he said the state should have announced a fixed price - say, around $1,000 - and waited to see how many took the offer.

"A lot of people think a license is worth a lot more than it really is," said Simns. "They're going to have a mess the way it is."

If not enough people make acceptable bids, O'Connell said, the state will have to resort to tougher restrictions on the remaining inactive licenses.

Virginia plans to conduct a similar auction, using $6.7 million in federal funds to buy back as many of its 1,800 commercial crabbing licenses as it can, said Jack Travelstead, that state's fisheries director. About 500 of the licenses have been frozen because they had not been used lately.

Some have questioned Maryland's focus on retiring limited crab-catcher licenses, because the crabbers using them account for less than 20 percent of the commercial crab harvest. State officials said they also hope to do something about the unused "tidal fishing" licenses typically held by full-time watermen, which authorize them to crab with up to 900 pots and to catch finfish and oysters. Of about 2,000 such licensees, Fegley said, 780 reported catching no crabs last year. Those licenses are transferable and sell for $15,000 to $20,000 or more, by some accounts.

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