With Maryland's crabbing season getting under way Friday, the state is making a new bid to buy back commercial fishing licenses, particularly from the 650 license-holders officials estimate are no longer active on the Chesapeake Bay.
The Department of Natural Resources mailed buyback offers last month to all 2,258 people with unlimited tidal fishing or crab harvester licenses. The amount offered ranges from a base of $4,000 for the crab harvester license, which allows the holder to fish with up to 300 crab pots, to $12,000 for a tidal fishing license with authorization for 900 crab pots in the bay.
State officials say the buyback is intended to keep pressure on the bay's rebuilding crab population from soaring if all the holders of unused licenses were to go back on the water. All told, about 5,000 people hold state licenses of various types to catch crabs and sell them.
The department purchased 683 "limited crab catcher" licenses under an earlier buyback, which ran from July 2009 until last month, according to Lynn W. Fegley, assistant fisheries director. Another 500 who had not reported catching anything in several years opted to limit their catch to male crabs in return for being able to keep their licenses, while 70 agreed to "freeze" their licenses until state officials determine the bay's crab population has fully recovered from the steep declines that prompted tight catch restrictions to be imposed three years ago.
Crabbers have until April 15 to return forms offering to sell their licenses and can either take a base price proffered by the state or seek a higher payment. The department will buy all licenses offered at the base price first. If any money is left, officials will hold a public drawing to randomly select licenses to be bought at the higher prices.
"It's kind of like 'buy it now' on eBay," Fegley said. Those who offer to sell their licenses for the base price are likely to get it, while those wanting more take a chance.
Fegley said the buyback plan was drawn up with the help of University of Maryland economists, who suggested it would yield a greater response.
The buyback comes as the crabbing season begins under identical restrictions as last year, with a series of short pauses in crabbing and a week-early close. Whether changes will be made will depend on results of the winter survey of the bay's crab population, which hasn't been completely analyzed, Fegley said.
Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said he's expecting a good harvest this year, though he noted that the spring cold snap could kill some crabs and depress the early season catch.
Simns said he thought it a "good idea" for the state to buy back more crabbing licenses, though he wasn't sure how many would go for the state's base offer.