As crab season beckons, some watermen hope for new rules to bolster their harvest

Joel Hayden's investment, tens of thousands of dollars' worth of yellow-painted wire cages, is spread across his lawn in neat stacks. Just beyond the water's edge, his paycheck is burrowed in the mud.

It's the eve of blue crab season for watermen like the 28-year-old Hoopers Island native, and he is sparing no expense to prepare. After all, here at the southern edge of Maryland's share of the Chesapeake Bay, there is only a short springtime window before the biggest crabs head north to fresher waters.

Next month, Hayden will begin scattering hundreds of the handmade crab pots around nearby creeks. If there are as many of the blue-legged crustaceans as watermen and scientists expect, it will be a busy start to the season.

A decade ago, the bay's blue crab population was on the brink of collapsing when Maryland and Virginia agreed to dramatically reduce the harvest of young and female crabs. Biologists credit the rules with helping the crab population rebound and stabilize, and mild weather this winter portends a third-straight year of gains in crab numbers.

But the rules could become a victim of their own success.

Officials in Gov. Larry Hogan's administration said this month they are willing to consider changes to the harvest limits if crab population growth remains strong, just as they are exploring opening some prosperous oyster sanctuaries to harvest.

For years, watermen from the lower Eastern Shore have begged state officials to ease crab catch limits. They are hoping changes may be coming from an administration that recently fired a veteran crab scientist and pledged a "customer service"-oriented approach to fishery management.

But other watermen and conservationists fear a less aggressive management style could set back recent progress.

And they are worried a change could spur Virginia — where most of the famed Maryland crabs are actually born — to loosen its own harvest restrictions, as officials are already discussing.

"That's just a scary thing for me," said Richard Young, a crabber who sells his harvest at Coveside Crabs in Dundalk. "I look at it as a long-term thing. I want to be able to go out and catch crabs for the rest of my life."

Biologists say any changes to crab harvest policies would come at a still-critical time for the species, which is naturally prone to erratic swings in fortune.

But the possibility of eased restrictions has made this a season of hope in Fishing Creek, a Dorchester County village where most residents still make their living off the Chesapeake in one way or another.

Being a waterman has long been a tough business, and it remains an option for relatively few sons and grandsons of watermen like Hayden. His new vessel, a 42-foot work boat, is under construction at a nearby boatyard — and the ability to catch smaller crabs deeper into the season would do much to help him recoup its price tag.

"It's a big difference," Hayden said. "It can be a matter of a couple hundred [dollars] at the end of the week, maybe even five or six hundred."

In 2008, with crab harvests and population estimates among the lowest on record, former Maryland and Virginia governors Martin O'Malley and Tim Kaine signed what was considered a landmark agreement. Through limits on the timing and size of harvests, they cut the harvest of female crabs by more than one-third.

"At the time, scientists were saying the population may be on the precipice of collapse," said Bruce Vogt, ecosystem science and synthesis manager in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Chesapeake Bay office.

It has worked, Vogt and other scientists say. The number of spawning-age females is approaching the 215 million target they set as necessary for a sustainable population. The total number of crabs has shown steady improvement since 2014.

This season is forecast to be another strong one, coming after a mild winter. Cold temperatures typically kill off a share of the population.

For most watermen around the bay, that is unequivocally good news. The more plentiful and muscular their catch, the more money they make. Baltimore diners have come to expect plenty of "jumbo," "colossal" and "heavyweight" crabs at summertime feasts.

On the lower Eastern Shore, though, there are worries local watermen won't share in the bounty as much. The biology and geography of the crab life cycle means they mostly catch small crabs that are picked for crab cake meat — and a rule that predates even the 2008 agreement means they have to throw the smallest ones back.

A Maryland crab's life begins in Virginia's saltier waters, and its earliest stages of growth happen just offshore. It then relies on tides and weather to make it up the Chesapeake, and spends the winter hibernating in the mud before temperatures warm, allowing it to resume growing and molting, ambling its way up and around the bay through the summer.

Because bigger crabs typically leave lower bay tributaries for less salty waters, usually by July 4, the catch there is smaller and less plentiful until crabs pass through on their way south in the fall, Dorchester watermen say. For much of the summer, they have to throw back a meaningful share of what they catch because it's smaller than the state policy will allow.

"Sometimes it'll make the difference between you being able to work and not being able to work," said Thomas "Bubby" Powley, a Dorchester County waterman for 45 years.

Lower Shore watermen have for years pleaded for the ability to catch crabs as small as 5 inches across throughout the season, which runs from April into December. Under current rules, that minimum size increases by a quarter of an inch in July, a significant hardship, they say.

"We need something to work on in the summer months," said Harry Phillips, who has owned Russell Hall Seafood and its nearly 80-year-old crab picking house in Fishing Creek for the past quarter-century.

Their request has been repeatedly denied in recent years, according to Brenda Davis, who until February served as manager of the crab fishery for the state Department of Natural Resources. Davis has made clear her resistance to changing the rule, and many watermen and environmentalists believe that's what got her fired in February.

At a legislative hearing called to investigate her dismissal earlier this month, Davis told lawmakers the state has kept the rule in place because science suggested that changing it would diminish the crab population. She offered watermen alternatives, including shortening the crab season in exchange for a couple extra weeks with a 5-inch minimum, but the watermen found her proposal unfair.

Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton would not discuss his decision to fire Davis, saying it was a confidential personnel matter. But he told lawmakers the Republican Hogan administration agreed with watermen that they had been ignored under O'Malley, a Democrat, and is "committed to providing the utmost customer service" going forward.

He testified that any policy revisions would depend on the results of an annual crab population survey, expected in early May. If crab numbers rise, "that leaves room for a lot of discussion," he said.

Watermen who say they felt Davis wasn't receptive to their concerns are waiting hopefully.

"The ball's in their court," Powley said.

Still, others were sad to see Davis dismissed and said they are nervous, but open to a rule change. They credit the policies with helping them catch bigger, more valuable crabs — but also emphasize that the rules were intended to be slackened if populations grew.

"Most of the guys in the upper part of the bay aren't for changing it right now," said Chuckie White, a waterman on Kent Island. "They want a couple years of a really, really good rebound."

And, he added, they aren't looking to stoke controversy: "One thing the watermen don't need is bad publicity."

Scientists and bay advocates say loosening the rules now could be dangerous, but acknowledge that if the harvest rules work, they should be eased eventually.

Allison Colden, Maryland fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said her organization has "cautious optimism" the bay's crabs are more resilient than they were a decade ago. The rules are designed to make sure more crabs are able to spawn, both increasing their numbers and preserving genetic diversity.

But the species is nonetheless prone to suffering from unfavorable weather or predation, she said.

"Given the amount of variability that still exists, we're at a critical point in determining if that positive trend is going to continue," she said.

That makes any rule changes a risky proposition. It's hard to know whether the population can withstand it, said Thomas Miller, director of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons.

"How you manage a rebounding fishery is almost as tricky as managing a declining fishery — maybe more so," he said.

In Virginia, officials have for several years been considering whether to allow, for the first time since the 2008 O'Malley/Kaine agreement, wintertime dredging of hibernating crabs. It's a thorny issue, to be sure, but the debate has remained grounded in science and avoided political drama, said Rom Lipcius, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who helps lead the annual bay crab survey.

He said he did not think any changes in Maryland policy would influence Virginia regulators.

Eric Johnson, who studied Chesapeake crabs for years before joining the University of North Florida faculty in 2011, said it may be an appropriate time to be reviewing crabbing restrictions across the Chesapeake. The goal is to have a sustainable population as well as a sustainable fishery, and as long as decisions to manage the species are rooted in science, they're valid, he said.

"When things are bad, we need to put regulations on a fishery, but when things are better and those guys have paid their dues, it makes sense to give back," he said. "It shouldn't be a one-way street where you continue to constrict."

To Dorchester County watermen like Bobby Whaples, the time has come to give back.

He spent years sharing his thoughts and concerns with state lawmakers who promised to push for laws and policies to help watermen, but says he has given up. While his son works on the water alongside him, he keeps his four grandchildren away from the family business, lest they "get it in their blood."

He says he doesn't want an "us versus them" battle over the rules. He just wants fairness.

"All we want to be able to do down here is go to work," Whaples said. "The last thing we want to see is the last crab go."

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