Plans to ban commercial crabbing on Sundays and at night next year in Maryland have been shelved, at least for now, in the face of heated protests from watermen.
New crabbing restrictions, intended to protect the Chesapeake Bay's seafood staple from overfishing, were withdrawn last week by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources after watermen in the Baltimore area and on the upper Eastern Shore complained that the rules were unfair to them or unnecessary, or both.
William P. Jensen, state fisheries director, said there were "tremendous turnouts" at hearings in late September in Annapolis and Easton, where watermen raised "reasonable" objections to the proposed rules. The crabbers suggested a variety of other restrictions, some of which had not been considered by the state, he said.
Mr. Jensen said he still plans to tighten crabbing rules by next summer. But for now the agency wants an advisory committee to try to come up with restrictions everyone can agree on.
A panel of about 20 watermen, recreational fishermen, seafood dealers and environmentalists is expected to begin meeting by Nov. 23, he said. Revised regulations should be drafted by February.
But William J. Goldsborough, fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the state was backing away from what was "a good first step only" in protecting crabs from overfishing. More restrictions, rather than fewer, will be needed, he said.
"If you have [rules] that everybody likes, that means nobody is affected," he said.
The bay's crab harvests have been depressed this year, probably because of cool weather, officials say. But Maryland and Virginia have pledged to take steps to limit the catch because growing numbers of fishermen using more gear could deplete the bay's abundant crab population.
This will be the fourth study of crabbing limits since 1987, Mr. Goldsborough said. Virginia has yet to propose anything, he noted.
The state drew no objections to its proposal to restrict the gear used by recreational crabbers. But its plan to ban commercial crabbing on Sunday and from 3 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. the rest of the week was opposed by upper bay watermen, while supported by those from farther south.
The split among watermen reflects differences in how and when crabs are caught from one end of the bay to the other, Mr. Jensen said.
Smith Islanders and some other lower shore watermen traditionally do not work on Sundays. Much of the harvest there is sold to dealers as picked crab meat or as soft-shell crabs.
In the upper bay, crabs show up later, and more of the harvest is sold live to restaurants and seafood markets, where demand peaks on weekends. Baltimore area watermen complained they would lose one of their most lucrative days of the week, while lower bay watermen would be barely hurt by the restriction.
Some watermen also argued that new catch restrictions are not needed, even though the commercial harvest this past summer was off by as much as two-thirds from an average of 40 million to 50 million pounds in recent years. They predicted crabs will rebound on their own.
"I think there's a silent minority of watermen out there who realize we do need to put a cap on the fishery for their own best interests," countered Mr. Goldsborough.