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Helping the Bay's crabbers as well as crabs

With the Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population in better shape than it's been in more than a decade, some are suggesting it's time to change the way the fishery is managed to help the crabbers now.

As I reported in The Baltimore Sun, the annual winter dredge survey of crabs suggests their number has increased by 60 percent in the past year, and the number of young crabs doubled.  Scientists estimate there are 658 million crabs now baywide - a level not reached since 1997.

Maryland's crabbers already have seen evidence of the growing abundance, as fisheries officials estimate the catch last year increased, even with the restrictions still in place.  But catching more crabs does not necessarily put more bread on the table of crabbers, as they often find the prices they're offered at dockside plummet when the crabs are most plentiful.  Last year, there were days watermen didn't even go out because they couldn't find a buyer for their catch or couldn't get a high enough price to make it worth the expense, said Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

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The Environmental Defense Fund, a Washington-basd conservation group, is trying to sell watermen on a different way for their business to be regulated. Instead of having their daily catch limited or the number of days they can work limited, the group suggests crabbers would do better if they had a guaranteed quota of crabs they could catch at a pace and schedule of their own choosing.  With "catch shares," they could time their harvest to take advantage of when market prices were higher.  The only restriction would be that they couldn't exceed their assigned quota.

State fisheries officials say they're looking at the idea, as does the head of Maryland's watermen's association.  Catch shares are already being used to regulate the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the fund's Tom Grasso.  The group took a group of watermen to the Gulf last winter to see for themselves how it was working.

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With the blue crab population in the Bay in better shape, Grasso says, it's a great time to see if something can't be done to buoy the fortunes of the region's crabbers.

"This is an example of how collaboration between government and industry can lead to success in restoring a population,'' Grasso says.  "I think we should build on that collaboration and figure out how to stabilize the way the fishery is run on behalf of the watermen, giving them more predictability, so there aren't instances where they have to not fish to make a living."

Given the distrust and animosity watermen have for the state Department of Natural Resources over the crab cutbacks and over changes in oyster management, it may take some doing to convince them to try a new regulatory scheme.  But simply relaxing the current restrictions won't necessarily put more money in watermen's pockets, Grasso points out, and scientists warn that could well put the crab population in jeopardy again. The fund is planning a series of meetings with watermen around the bay this spring and summer to explore the idea.

There's an article on catch shares in the current issue of the Bay Journal, which you can read here.

(Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston)

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