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Governor proposes limits on crabbing


Warning of a "crisis brewing" over dwindling female blue crabs in Chesapeake Bay, Gov. Parris N. Glendening yesterday called for emergency restrictions on crabbing starting this fall.

He proposed regulations effective Sept. 15 that would limit recreational and commercial crabbing to five days a week, banning catch on Wednesday and Sunday. He also proposed closing the crab season six weeks early, on Nov. 15.

Crabbing is now allowed seven days a week from April 1 through Dec. 31.

Next year, the governor said, he would seek to ban crabbing one day a week all season long and halt the recreational and commercial harvest even earlier, on Oct. 31.

Taken together, he said, the new restrictions should reduce the harvest of female crabs by 40 to 45 percent, bringing the catch back to 1990-1992 levels.

"The future of the Chesapeake Bay blue crab lies with our protecting females," the governor said at a news conference at Sandy Point State Park near Annapolis. He held up a pregnant female crab to dramatize his point, displaying the orange egg sack covering its underside.

Though scientists and watermen are still debating whether the bay's crab population really is on the verge of collapse, Mr. Glendening said he wanted to avert a possible calamity by imposing catch restrictions over the next 14 months.

"I am convinced we have a crisis brewing, and the way to head it off is to take decisive action," he said.

Scientists, environmentalists, legislative leaders generally supported the governor's plan, and even watermen grudgingly acknowledged the need for further restrictions. However, Mr. Glendening's got a cool response from Virginia to his call for similar action from that state, which shares the bay's most familiar and valuable resource with Maryland.

Recalling how state officials were forced to impose a five-year moratorium on catching rockfish a decade ago after ignoring early warnings the popular fish was in trouble, Mr. Glendening said, "We simply will not permit this to happen again." He said there were similar warning signs now for crabs, particularly for females.

Surveys have shown a steady decline bay wide in the female crab population the past four years, and sampling this summer by Maryland state biologists found the decline is continuing, Mr. Glendening said.

Meanwhile, he noted, there has been a 40 percent increase in the harvest of females in Maryland during September and October in the past two years. The catch of females so far this year is up 40 percent over last year, state officials said.

Those two trends -- declining female populations and increased catch -- threaten to deplete the bay's crab population, Mr. Glendening said, and they could devastate a seafood industry worth nearly $100 million to Maryland's economy.

"Crabs are more than a Maryland tradition," he said. "They are a part of our heritage that must be protected for current and future generations."

If enacted, the new restrictions should enable up to 7 million more females to avoid winding up in crab pots and leave Maryland waters for their spawning grounds in Virginia.

Female crabs migrate south after they mate to spawn near the mouth of the bay. Though the spawning migration takes place during spring and summer, it is heaviest in fall when the water turns colder. Most spend the winter burrowed into the bottom before emerging in spring to lay their eggs.

"This action comes not a moment too soon," said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which had called on Maryland and Virginia last month to protect females by banning crabbing in deep water, where they go to migrate down the bay.

Eugene Cronin, retired director of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory and a longtime crab researcher, said the proposal was a good first step that likely would increase the number of females that survived to reproduce.

But Dr. Cronin noted that Maryland's actions were doomed unless Virginia took similar steps to conserve, since both states harvest the same stock.

Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said commercial crabbers were willing to accept additional restrictions. But he said the governor's plan was more "drastic" than his members would accept, and he noted that crabs not caught in Maryland could be harvested in Virginia.

"If Virginia's going to reap the benefit for what we do, we're not going to stand still for it," Mr. Simns said.

Mr. Glendening acknowledged as much, saying he had telephoned Virginia Gov. George Allen yesterday to inform him of Maryland's move and to discuss further limits Virginia might impose on it watermen to protect female crabs.

"This is not just Maryland's problem," Mr. Glendening said, and he added that Mr. Allen had pledged his cooperation in considering joint action.

But Becky Norton Dunlop, Virginia's secretary of natural resources, said later that her state was unwilling for now to go beyond the crabbing restrictions it had imposed on its watermen just last winter.

Both states have taken steps to limit crabbing in the past two years. Maryland imposed limits on the gear and hours of its commercial and recreational crabbers last year, and Virginia expanded its crab sanctuary near the mouth of the bay, where no harvests are allowed in summer. That state also tightened its restrictions on wintertime dredging of crabs -- a harvest that is overwhelmingly pregnant females.

But Del. John S. Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat and co-chairman of a legislative committee that could veto the rules, said, "I think it's the thing to do for this year." Mr. Arnick's committee, the Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review panel, plans a public hearing on them Sept. 13 in Annapolis.

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