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A crab shortage? Not here, dealers and officials say


KENT NARROWS -- If you're worried that Chesapeake blue crabs are in decline and too scarce to steam, think again.

The real problem: Not enough Marylanders are bothering to go out and buy them, according to state officials, seafood dealers and watermen.

Yesterday they cooked up a news conference to reassure the public that the bay contains plenty of blue crabs, and the caviarlike prices being charged earlier this spring are coming down.

More and bigger crabs are being caught, officials and dealers said. Prices for hard crabs -- which soared to $150 per bushel in Baltimore -- have dropped $20 to $30 since Memorial Day, a sign of an improving harvest.

"Maryland crabs are alive and well. They're in good supply," said Eleanor Van Dyke, a Cambridge seafood processor.

She and others spoke at the W. H. Harris Crab House beside the Chesapeake in Kent Narrows.

"Even though crab season got off a little bit slow, we're seeing lots and lots of small crabs," said Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

"There is every reason to expect an average crab harvest," said F. William Sieling III, director of seafood marketing for the state Department of Agriculture. He and others blamed news reports earlier this year about a long-term decline in the bay's crab population for scaring the public away from buying crabs.

"Lots of dealers were stuck with high-priced crabs" after Memorial Day weekend, said J. C. Tolley, a seafood dealer in Dorchester County.

Mr. Sieling's prediction of business-as-usual was seconded by W. Peter Jensen, fisheries director for the Department of Natural Resources. Trawl surveys by state biologists suggest that this year's crab harvest should be "normal," or about 46 million pounds, he said.

A check yesterday of crab sellers in Baltimore confirmed that retail prices have fallen by $5 to $14 per dozen. The establishments said they have "plenty of crabs," from $10 per dozen for females up to $30 per dozen for large males.

But experts from the scientific community pointed out that over the long term, the bay's crab population could be in jeopardy from overfishing.

"We've never been able to predict harvests of blue crabs," said M. Elizabeth Gillelan, director of the bay office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A federally funded survey has detected a 34 percent decline in harvestable crabs in the past six years, she noted, and an even greater drop-off of about 60 percent in females.

"If I were a fisheries manager, I'd pay attention to the spawning stock," said Romauld N. Lipcius, a crab biologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences.

Mr. Jensen acknowledged that the crab population in the bay has been smaller the past few years than during the previous decade, but he said crab numbers and harvests tend to fluctuate naturally.

"There are some long-term trends that concern us but no immediate crisis," he said.

The state has arranged a series of public meetings beginning next week to discuss crab abundance, but Mr. Jensen said the state would only propose further limits on crabbing if the harvest is poor or if next winter's baywide crab survey indicated further decline.

For their part, seafood dealers and watermen warned against more regulation of the crab harvest. If crabs are in decline, they said, the culprits are unregulated sports crabbers and striped bass, or rockfish, not commercial fishermen.

"There are too many rockfish in the bay right now," Mr. Tolley said. His biggest fear, he said, was that "bureaucrats" and "biologists" would harm the state's seafood industry by trying to "micromanage" the crab catch.

"Anytime you're dealing with nature . . . there are up years and down years," the seafood dealer said. "It doesn't appear to be much that man can do."

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