Amid signs that Maryland's crab harvest may be recovering from last year's slump, state fisheries officials have dropped plans to begin sweeping new restrictions on crabbing this year.
Officials say that they still intend to protect Chesapeake Bay's blue crabs from overfishing by limiting crabbing hours and gear next year, by capping the number of commercial crabbers, and by requiring licenses for those who crab for sport.
But the changes will have to wait until spring because this year's crabbing season is already about half over, said W. Peter Jensen, fisheries director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Only six weeks ago, when Gov. William Donald Schaefer unveiled the state's plan to rein in crabbers, state officials talked about adopting some of the new limits this year, even though the crabbing season had begun April 1.
Officials had suggested they would seek emergency regulations early this month that would, among other things, reduce the hours when crabs may be caught.
The restrictions were proposed because last year's drop in landings, coupled with evidence of increasing fishing pressure in recent years, presented "early warning signs" that the bay's blue crab population, though still healthy, could be on the verge of depletion.
Last year's commercial catch was only 30 million pounds. That figure was down by one-third from 1991 and the lowest harvest since state officials revised their catch surveys in 1981.
Last week, however, the Department of Natural Resources issued a press release declaring that "the outlook for blue crabs this summer is excellent."
"Everything we are seeing in our surveys and reports from crabbers confirms that the crabs hatched in 1991 and 1992 are now reaching legal size, and Marylanders can expect a normal supply this summer," Dr. Torrey C. Brown, the state natural resources secretary, said.
The statement did not mention tightening crabbing regulations. But DNR biologists say that even as crabs have rebounded, there appears to be more crabbing going on this summer than there was last year.
Mr. Jensen said that officials have decided it is too late to change the rules for this year. Legislative leaders had indicated that they would require a public hearing before any crabbing restrictions could take effect this year. That would have delayed their imposition until next month at the earliest, with less than half the season remaining.
But Mr. Jensen said the state now plans to publish next month the comprehensive changes in crabbing regulations, which, if adopted after several months of public hearings and review, would take effect next year.
Among the changes contemplated:
* A cap on the number of commercial crabbing licenses, eliminating so-called "noncommercial" licenses and requiring all who catch crabs for their own use to buy a license;
* Limiting to 300 per person the number of crab "pots" -- box-like wire mesh crab traps that are baited with eels or chicken necks and anchored under water;
* Restricting commercial crabbers to working from 3 a.m. to 5 p.m., and recreational crabbers from dawn to dusk.
Some changes, such as overhauling license requirements, will need legislative action.
"We got a little worried that if we went into emergency regulations on just a little part of [the crabbing plan] and then [released] the whole package, people would get a little confused," Mr. Jensen said.
The delay was not a surprise, as many had doubted whether the state could -- or would -- change crabbing regulations in mid-season.
"I think that's probably smart," said Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.
He said the only part of the state's proposed crabbing restrictions that upset full-time watermen was a provision to limit each person to 300 pots. Some full-time crabbers put out 1,000 or more pots.
The proposed night curfew on crabbing also posed problems for some part-time crabbers, who work during the day and go out to check their pots at night.
Nor was the postponement a shock to advocates of crabbing restrictions, who note that Maryland and Virginia have yet to make good on a pledge they made in 1989 -- as part of the multi-state Chesapeake Bay restoration agreement -- to cap fishing for crabs.
Maryland first proposed limits on crabbing last fall, but withdrew them for more study after watermen turned out in force to protest plans to ban commercial harvests on Sundays. After a similar false start, Virginia is studying restrictions similar to those outlined last month by the governor.
"We should have been doing this four years ago," said William J. Goldsborough, a fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "So at this point, we're not going to accomplish a whole lot by rushing into just a small part of it.
"Hopefully, with more time, we'll end up with a solid package that has more support," Mr. Goldsborough concluded.