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Crabs in the news, but not so much in the bay


Crabs are in the news. They were darned scarce this summer. The state just proposed permanent new limits on their harvest. And many crabbers are furious.

What is a good citizen of the Chesapeake to make of it? Here's a primer on the issue:

Why are crabs so important?

People love to eat them, of course. Nearly a decade ago, crabs surpassed oysters as the most valuable catch from the bay.

Lots of other Chesapeake critters depend on crabs for food, including: eels, striped bass, croakers, cobia, red drum, black drum, toadfish, sand bar and bull sharks, cow nose rays, speckled trout, weakfish, catfish, gars and largemouth bass.

Also, loggerhead and Atlantic Ridley turtles, herons, egrets, loons, canvasback ducks -- and crabs themselves.

Who catches the most crabs?

Commercial watermen take 100 million pounds in an excellentyear. That's a total for Maryland and Virginia. (Harvests in Maryland slightly exceed those in Virginia.)

Recreational and part-time crabbers catch more than you'd think -- 30 million to 50 million pounds in a top year.

Crab pots, the wire-mesh cubes invented by an Illinois native in 1928, account for about 70 percent of the commercial catch. Next come trotlines (baited lines strung between two floats) and dredges, followed by such devices as dip nets and bank traps.

Are we catching too many?

Most experts, including many watermen, think so. But pointing to one poor year is like saying that one hot summer means global warming has begun.

Still, there is no doubt that commercial pressure on crabs has gone way up, as harvests of oysters and fish have declined.

The winter dredge fleet in Virginia, which includes more Marylanders every year, numbered 70 boats in 1976, compared to about 300 now, and today's boats carry much bigger dredges.

An estimated 1 million crab pots are in use throughout the bay, up 50 percent from a decade ago.

How scarce are crabs?

The Maryland harvest through July was less than 7 million pounds, with five months left in the crabbing season.

Virginia, too, says crab catches are down 70 percent from normal; but both states say this year seems "within normal variation."

The lowest Maryland harvest in recent memory was 9 million to 10 million pounds in 1968. But the catch rebounded to 27 million pounds the following year.

Are the restrictions needed?

Some form of conservation makes sense. Too often, bay managers have waited until a species proved it was in trouble by crashing. That's why we haven't had a shad season in Maryland for 12 years. But managing the crab population involves a lot of guesswork, as with any fishery. And there's no scientific proof that the restrictions will work.

What would they do?

Give commercial crabbers Sundays off, for one thing. But a Sunday ban doesn't cut harvests much, since the crab pots remain in the water.

Similarly, the proposed new crabbing hours, 4:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., would have little effect, since few commercial crabbers start earlier or stay later.

Still, the changes could serve the state's purpose, which is to ease the commercial pressure on crabs.

But many watermen will protest, particularly those from "up the bay" who make good money selling to restaurants on Sunday.

The impact of the new regulations could be greatest on the growing number of part-time and recreational crabbers.

There are about 10,000 part-timers who hold "non-commercial" licenses, obtainable for only $10, and sell their crabs. The state wants to greatly restrict the gear these crabbers can use and limit their daily catch to 2 bushels per boat. Currently, everyone aboard with a license can have 2 bushels.

As for recreational crabbers -- unlicensed "chicken neckers" -- the state wants to restrict their equipment somewhat and impose a 2-bushels-per-boat limit, replacing the current 1 bushel per person.

Are restrictions too weak?

They don't go nearly far enough to restrict part-time crabbing done for money.

As for purely recreational crabbing, I think every Marylander deserves the right to catch enough hard crabs to steam up for dinner.

But I see little need for people with other jobs to make money from crabbing, for a paltry $10 license fee. The free-enterprise concept is great, but the bay's dwindling resources can't take it.

If we want to preserve watermen, we must recognize that they need good crabbing more than ever, with so many other species in decline.

To hold down the number of new commercial crabbers, the state should consider raising the minimum entry fee for a commercial license, now $50.

Moreover, watermen ought to push seriously for a permanent cap on the number of people allowed to fish the bay commercially -- the "limited entry" concept. The only way a new person could get in would be to buy in, by purchasing a license from someone else.

This also would make watermen more conservation-minded, something they're not noted for in the bay's come-one, come-all fishery.

What's Virginia doing?

Very little. The crab is a bi-state matter, and the bay restoration plans jointly adopted by Maryland and Virginia call for both states to develop crab-management plans.

But Virginia authorities seem to lack the power -- and the will -- to be much more than a captive of commercial fishing interests.

What happens next?

There are three possibilities:

* Following public hearings, the regulations will be adopted and take effect April 1.

* The restrictions will be scaled back, forcing a new round of public hearings.

* Bowing to watermen's demands, the state will table the issue for further study -- something I'm told is being considered.

That would be a sham. It is hard to believe that a single counter-argument has been raised that the state has not heard and evaluated a hundred times before.

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