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A Devastating Blow to Watermen


Ewell. -- Governor Glendening's new crabbing regulations, if enacted, will signal the beginning of the end for a way of life that has endured through two world wars and the Great Depression.

The proposal includes banning crabbing Sundays and Wednesdays for the rest of the crabbing season and ending the season early, November 15. Next year, crabbing would be banned one day a week, and the season would end October 31, two months ahead of the normal December 31 closing. These regulations seem to come at the behest of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which has unilaterally declared the Maryland blue crab population "on the verge of collapse."

The foundation offers little evidence for this apocalyptic warning. It is true that the average catch per crab pot has declined in recent years. But as any waterman can tell you, that is the result of an increase in the number of crab pots in the water, rather than a decline in the overall crab population. It is estimated that in 1992 there were 94,000 crab pots. Last year there were 130,000. Still more pots will be in the water as a result of the governor's restrictions, as watermen try desperately to make up for the early termination of the season.

These regulations would be devastating to Maryland watermen. With the virtual disintegration of the state's oyster industry, watermen are completely dependent on crabbing for their livelihood. Shortening the season and keeping them in port two days a week would cause such a financial loss that most would be forced to seek other sources of income. Retailers would look to Virginia and North Carolina to meet their needs. Consumers would pay higher prices for crabs. Particularly hard hit would be lower Eastern Shore counties, where alternatives to crabbing are scarce.

It is especially unfair to handicap Maryland watermen when their counterparts in Virginia would not be forced to work under the same restrictions. While Maryland watermen stayed at home two days a week, Virginia watermen would be free to work. And Virginia watermen would be able to work long after the Maryland crabbing season ended. It appears that Governor Glendening is working harder to boost Virginia's economic interest than that of his own state.

The fact is that Virginia is as much, if not more, to blame for a decline in crab catches. Maryland watermen are not allowed to catch or sell pregnant female crabs, yet Virginia watermen catch and sell bushels of them every day. Virginia allows crab dredging during winter months while Maryland keeps its crabbers in port. Governor Glendening's proposals would be at best a partial solution to the apparent decline of Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. Maryland watermen should not be asked to carry the cost of conservation alone.

Maryland watermen acknowledge the decline in the crab population, and are aware of the problem of over-harvesting. Unlike the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, however, watermen do not see an imminent collapse of the crab population. Experienced watermen are far more knowledgeable about the bay than scientists. We have seen similar declines in the 1940s and 1960s, and we know that crabs run in cycles. With some modest regulation, the crab population will rebound.

If the governor wants to help the crab population, here are some alternatives for him to consider:

* Impose a permanent ban on Sunday crabbing.

* Limit catches to 51 bushels per boat. Even more important, limit each boat, regardless of the size of the crew, to a maximum of 450 pots.

* Enforce existing crabbing regulations, especially those concerning the harvesting of undersized crabs.

* Finally, it is important that Maryland and Virginia work together so that the conservation efforts of one state are not undone by the other.

If these proposals sound familiar to bureaucrats in Annapolis, it is because they were suggested eight years ago by the Tangier Sound Watermen's Association on Smith Island. Most Maryland watermen could live with these alternative regulations. Governor Glendening's proposal can only bring disaster to an industry that pumps up to $75 million into the state economy. They will also affect the economies of neighboring states like Pennsylvania and New York.

The governor should stop listening to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and its know-nothing scientists. He should go to the experts -- the watermen who are out on the bay, working hard to make an honest living. After all, it is the watermen, not the politicians, environmentalists or scientists, who have the most to lose.

Chris Parks is a waterman and free-lance writer living on Smith Island.

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