NEWBURG — — The sun is just peeking over the treetops as Billy Rice steers his 24-foot boat, Miss Jill, out into the Potomac River.
Six days a week, in all kinds of weather, except lightning and high winds, the Charles County waterman and his helper and wife, Melinda, spend their mornings pulling crab pots from the water. Crabbing has been that way for decades.
But watermen across the bay are starting to acknowledge things need to change if their traditional livelihood is to survive. And this fiercely independent bunch — full of distrust of officials, and even at times of each other — is trying to band together to control their destiny.
They've been meeting in recent months to develop proposals for improving their future, taking aim at some state regulations and policies. But the gatherings have been punctuated at times by testy exchanges among the watermen themselves, and some are boycotting the talks.
The catch this summer has been good, but long-term prospects remain uncertain for the men (and a few women) who make a living from the bay. Oysters, once the most bountiful product of the Chesapeake Bay, are a sliver of their former abundance, forcing watermen to rely more on crabbing to carry them through the year. But they're squeezed by rising costs and a market flooded with cheap, imported crabmeat.
"If something happens to crabbing in the Chesapeake Bay, our seafood industry is gone, because that's keeping us going right now," said Rice, 55, who's been working on the water since he was 10.
So for the past six months, he and more than two dozen other watermen from Havre de Grace to Smith Island have been meeting after work one evening a month in Grasonville on the Eastern Shore. Over pizza, salad and soda, the "Blue Crab Design Team," as they're called, talk and argue into the night about how to craft a brighter, more secure future.
"We're trying to make it so we have a fishery in 10 years," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.
One aim, he said, is to "get rid of a bunch of little nitpicky laws" that cramp crabbers' ability to earn a living, without allowing overfishing of the bay's iconic crustacean.
Among the rules that irk Dundalk crabber Richard Young is the one forcing him to stop crabbing 71/2 hours after sunrise — around 1:30 p.m. this time of year — even if engine trouble or bad weather delays his starting time. Or the rule that doesn't allow him to change his day off for the entire year.
"Things could be changed for the better for everybody — for the crabs and for the crabbers," Young said.
Relations between watermen and fisheries regulators have been tense, even acrimonious, for years. But state officials sitting in on the talks say they'll consider the watermen's proposals, as long as they don't jeopardize the crab population or other things in the bay — and are agreed on by all the watermen.
Steve Early, assistant fisheries director with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said regulators hope the talks lead to some form of "co-management." But for watermen to be trusted with managing themselves, he said, they must show some responsibility.
Though crabbing has not been tarred with the poaching scandals that have afflicted oystering and rockfishing recently, watermen acknowledge they have been exaggerating their crab catch reports for years. They say they feared the state would limit or even cut them off based on the reports. But as a result, regulators have been unsure exactly how many crabs are being caught, so they limit the overall catch more than necessary to maintain an adequate crab population.
That means there are potentially millions of dollars' worth of crabs left in the water that could have been sustainably harvested, on top of the 53 million pounds officials estimate were caught last year.
Regulators also worry that there are too many people permitted to catch and sell crabs, posing a threat to the sustainability of the crab stock. The state has bought and retired more than 760 commercial licenses in the past couple years, but more than 5,000 remain. Nearly a quarter of those are inactive, and officials fear the license-holders could deplete the fishery if they suddenly resumed crabbing.
And, finally, there is the graying of the industry. A survey of 2,000 commercial watermen found that 60 percent were at least 50 years old, and a third were 60 or older. Only 14 percent were under 40.
Rock Hall waterman David Kirwan said his two sons used to work with him, but left the water four years ago to go into professional mixed martial-arts cage fighting. Kirwan, who's 54, thinks they'll come back once their fight careers wane because "it's in their blood."
"I'd like to be able to pass my business on to my children, you know?" he says. "I told them it ain't the best business in the world, but I can make a decent living if I work at it."