500 Crabbers Agree To Sell Licenses Back To State


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August 07, 2009|By TIMOTHY B. WHEELER

Close to 500 commercial crabbers bit on the state's offer to pay them to surrender their right to catch crabs for sale, according to Lynn Fegley, assistant fisheries director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

DNR had mailed buyback offers last month to 3,676 Marylanders holding "limited crab catcher" licenses, and they had until July 31 to respond. The licenses allow holders to deploy up to 50 wire-mesh "pots" or an unlimited amount of baited line to catch crabs for sale. They cost $60 a year but are automatically renewable and transferable.

The state has issued about 6,000 commercial crabbing licenses in all, but officials say only about 1,800 are actively fished. Fisheries managers say they need to retire a big chunk of those unused licenses to help ensure that the Chesapeake Bay's crab population continues to recover. If those inactive crabbers return to the water, they could overwhelm the crabbing restrictions the state has imposed to guard against overfishing.

Fegley acknowledged that the response to the state's buyback offer was "clearly short" of what DNR had hoped, but pointed out that "it's the first time we've done something like this."

This is the state's second attempt to retire unused crab licenses. Last winter, the state had tried to "freeze" more than 1,000 limited crab catcher licenses that had not reported any catch in the previous five years, but withdrew that attempt amid a flurry of protests.

Some crabbers may have been confused by the terms of the state's buyback offer, Fegley said. Rather than offering crabbers a fixed price, the state asked them to name the price at which they'd be willing to give up their crabbing permits. Officials then would pick the highest price they'd be willing to pay and then buy up all the licenses offered at that or lower prices.

DNR expects to notify crabbers next week if their bids were accepted, Fegley said. After that, the state will consider its options.

Doug Lipton, a fisheries economist with the University of Maryland who's consulting with the DNR, said he didn't think the response was that bad, considering the novelty of the deal.

Lipton predicted that more crabbers would be willing to sell their licenses if given a second chance, once they see what the state winds up paying. But many of the bids this time also were high and unlikely to be accepted, he said, and some were clearly protest bids, with prices in the multimillion-dollar stratosphere.

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