Gov. Parris N. Glendening agreed last night to change his proposed crabbing restrictions in a bid to ease the economic bite on Maryland watermen.
Officials said the changes still would protect Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population, which has been under pressure in recent years, raising fears that the species is in danger of depletion.
Responding to complaints from watermen and seafood industry officials, the governor agreed to amend his original proposal, which called for barring commercial and recreational crabbing two days a week this fall, starting Friday.
Instead, Mr. Glendening has decided to prohibit crabbing one day a week and shorten crabbers' hours the other six days. Crabbing now can take place seven days a week from April 1 through Dec. 31.
"Many roads lead to Rome," said John R. Griffin, secretary of natural resources, who presented the alternate plan to the governor last night. "I think we're very close to a perfected plan which achieves our goal and which respects some of the very diverse and unique . . . customs of crabbing up and down the bay."
Officials would not fully disclose the plan. Mr. Griffin said he was consulting with watermen, crab packers and legislators on details.
But Mr. Griffin said the new plan would reduce by four to six hours the work day of commercial watermen who use pots, or wire traps, to catch crabs. Crabbers would have to start later and finish earlier each day. The legal starting time for crabbing varies depending on what kind of gear is used, but now can be as early as 3:30 a.m. Closing time is 5 p.m.
In a concession to watermen, crabbing would be barred odifferent days in the upper and lower bay. Upper bay watermen had objected to Sunday closure, saying sales are good that day. Lower bay watermen, who tend not to work Sundays, objected " to a weekday closure.
Another major aspect of the original plan -- to end the crabbing season six weeks early this year, on Nov. 15 -- remains unchanged.
The action came on the eve of a potentially bruising legislative hearing on his proposed emergency regulations, at which watermen and seafood industry executives were expected to complain that the state's move would be disastrous economically. The Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee was to meet today.
The restrictions were drafted to curb the catch of female crabs by 20 percent this year. The females have dwindled in abundance in recent years as their harvest has increased, officials said. The fall catch of female crabs in Maryland has increased 40 percent in the past two years.
Mr. Griffin had said he would consider alternative crabbing restrictions that would be less disruptive but still meet goals. He has been meeting and talking with watermen and industry officials since the governor unveiled his plan Aug. 31.
"This goes a long way to relieving concerns we've been hearing from industry about the initial proposal," said William Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which pressed for crabbing restrictions.
"What's being compromised here is the means to the end, not the end itself," Mr. Goldsborough said.
It was unclear whether watermen and seafood industry officials would accept the governor's alternate plan. Some had offered to support a plan that would bar crabbing one day a week and shorten the workday by two hours. But state officials rejected that offer, saying it did not reduce the catch as much as two days off.