On Monday and Tuesday evenings, almost 400 commercial and recreational crabbers attended public hearings in Easton and Annapolis on proposed changes to regulations being formulated for the blue crab season that opens April 1 in Maryland.
The session in Easton on Monday night drew about 250 mostly commercial crabbers, and according to Steve Early, special assistant to the director of the Department of Natural Resources' Tidewater Fisheries division, much of the comment received dealt with changes in the commercial crab fishery.
In Annapolis on Tuesday night, the crowd of 127 at Annapolis High School seemed to be evenly split between recreational and commercial crabbers.
Under the rules of the public meetings, the only items open for public comment by recreational crabbers were reproposals that
* Recreational and licensed noncommercial crabbers with not more than 10 collapsible traps and/or rings and not more than 1,000 feet of trotline per person or up to 25 traps or rings and 2,000 feet of trotline per boat.
* Increase the distance between trotlines and crab traps or rings to 100 feet.
* Limit the number of crab pots set from private property in all counties to two.
* Require one 2 5/16-inch cull ring in the upper parlor of all crab pots except in peeler pots, except for pots with mesh less than 1 1/2 inches on each side or pots with mesh greater than 2 inches on a side.
In each case -- except the number of crab pots that can be set VTC from private property -- the reproposals seem to represent a gain for the unlicensed recreational crabber over the original proposals made last October.
However, a number who commented at the Annapolis hearing found fault with the proposals, which Early said were designed ++ to provide more access to more unlicensed recreational crabbers and to "get rid of that licensed noncommercial crabber."
Early said that the regulations are designed to cap fishing effort at current levels, "establish uniformity" among crabbing interests and create "two distinct types of crabbers" -- recreational and commercial.
At this point, Early said, there is no shortage of blue crabs, and over the past 15 years there has been no shortage, although there have been natural fluctuations in their abundance. Capping fishing effort, Early said, will help to ensure that the blue crab population is not overfished in the future.
However, many of the recreational crabbers who were among the nearly four dozen people who commented in Annapolis, felt the reproposals would have an adverse effect on their ability to crab effectively.
The 100 feet between trotlines, for example, might mean that some narrow tidal creeks would have room for only one trotline, where in the past two or more might have been run.
The numbers of traps or rings allowed, some crabbers said, would mean less access to crabbers because it would take more time for fewer people to catch their limit, which is proposed to be one bushel per person or no more than two bushels per boat.
"I don't understand why there needs to be any limit on traps or trotlines," one crabber from Baltimore County said. "If the catch limit is one bushel per person, and the idea is to get people off the water sooner so someone else can have a chance to catch some crabs, then why not let us catch that one bushel as fast as we can?
"The limits on trotlines and traps make no sense."
Time limits for recreational crabbers -- sunrise to 5 p.m. on the bay and sunrise to sunset in the tributaries -- were not open for discussion during the period for public comment, although several people tried to address the issue.
Early said that the time limits are among a group of proposed regulations that were discussed and approved during a series of six public hearings late last summer and DNR is "not proposing further changes . . . you can take that first part as a given."
After the public comment period closed Tuesday night, Early did accept questions on the proposed time limits and explained that the time limits were established because "most recreational activity was in the tributaries" and an earlier closure on the bay would "eliminate recreational crabbers from [illegally] fishing commercial pots."
By Early's estimate there are some 200,000 recreational crabbers in Maryland and a "couple of thousand" commercial crabbers.
If these regulations, which have been formulated under the state's Crab Action Plan, are intended in part to increase recreational opportunities, then the great majority of recreational crabbers who testified Tuesday night can't see it.
"Who was happy with the time limits," asked one crabber, whose question brought applause, "the department [DNR] or the people at these hearings?"
Written comment on the proposals may be sent to Steve Early, DNR Fisheries Division, Tawes State Office Building, C-2, 580 Taylor Ave., Annapolis, Md. 21401. Comment must be received by next Tuesday.