Limits on crab catches likely Harvest is rising, but DNR intends to hedge its bets

Despite a rebound in the crab harvest this summer, the state Department of Natural Resources is moving ahead with proposed restrictions for Maryland's watermen and recreational crabbers.

State officials said yesterday that the commercial catch through July was 22.3 million pounds, about 57 percent above last year's harvest at the same time, 14.2 million pounds.


William P. Jensen, the state director of fisheries, said the catch is roughly on pace to equal the state's annual average over the past decade -- 47 million pounds. Last year's harvest was about 30 million pounds, the lowest since 1981.

For half a million Marylanders, crabbing is a way of life or a recreational tradition, and the blue crab is the leading money catch of the Chesapeake Bay. The average commercial harvest is worth about $21 million a year at dockside.


Mr. Jensen appeared at a briefing for the House Environmental Matters Committee in Annapolis. He listed at least 12 restrictions intended to prevent over-harvesting, including:

* Licensing recreational crabbers.

* Limiting recreational catches to one bushel per person per day.

* Limiting the number of crab pots to 300 per commercial licensee.

The state is publishing the regulations and in October will hold public hearings in Annapolis, Salisbury, Leonardtown and Kent County. Some of the measures require legislative approval and none will take effect until next year.

Mr. Jensen said the state tried to avoid singling out any group for restrictions. "We think we can work this one out to everyone's satisfaction," he said. "Everybody agrees that something should be done."

The state proposed the restrictions after last year's unusually low harvest. Despite yesterday's encouraging news, state officials say they want to control the catch to prevent the kind of over-harvesting that has decimated other bay fisheries.

At yesterday's meeting, committee members wondered how the state would enforce some of the rules, especially limits on the crab pots that dot the bay by the thousands.


Mr. Jensen said other states have done so with spot checks, audits and informants.

"It's amazing how many people . . . want to comply with the law and . . . will tell on somebody," added James Peck, an assistant DNR secretary.

Some committee members complained that the limits would hurt certain groups of crabbers.

Del. Anthony M. DiPietro Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, criticized a proposal to restrict waterfront landowners to two pots, instead of four as several counties allow.

"How much harder do you want to hit the little guy?" Mr. DiPietro asked.