The Glendening administration won legislative approval of major new crabbing restrictions yesterday after a 3 1/2 -hour hearing in Annapolis before an overflow crowd of nearly 300 angry watermen and recreational crabbers.
The restrictions, which take effect tomorrow, limit recreational crabbing to weekends, Friday through Sunday. They also prohibit commercial crabbing one day a week and shorten the hours crab harvesting is allowed each day. The season will end six weeks early, on Nov. 15.
The curbs are designed to protect the Chesapeake Bay's blue crab population, which scientists have warned may be in danger of depletion.
But watermen complained bitterly that their livelihood is threatened by the state-mandated reduction in harvest.
"If we can't make it with these regulations, who will feed our families or pay our bills?" asked Dwight Marshall of Smith Island, where crabbing is virtually the only occupation.
A handful of recreational crabbers also protested, saying they were being hobbled to appease commercial watermen.
But with only minor modifications, the joint Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee unanimously endorsed the administration's proposed restrictions, which had been revised at the last minute in response to objections by watermen.
"This proposal . . . may be hurting you an awful lot, but it's not killing you," said Del. John Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat who is co-chairman of the committee. He said all involved in crabbing have to suffer some if the bay's crab population is to be conserved.
"No one is smiling about this, but it does achieve the objectives we want," said Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin, who was negotiating details with watermen until just before the hearing started.
The state's plan is aimed at getting a 20 percent reduction in the catch of female crabs this fall so more can survive to reproduce, with a second round of limits planned for the full crabbing season next year.
Scientific surveys have detected a major decline in the bay's female crab population in the past few years, at the same time watermen have reported a 40 percent increase in their harvest of females, or sooks.
In announcing emergency action two weeks ago, Gov. Parris N. Glendening said he wanted to head off a "crisis brewing" in the bay's most valuable fishing industry.
The governor's original plan had called for prohibiting crabbing two days a week this fall, on Wednesdays and Sundays.
Complaining that the plan would mean economic devastation, watermen and crab processors offered a compromise. They suggested giving up one day a week and shortening the workday two hours on the other six days.
But state officials, while accepting some of the industry's proposal, said it was insufficient and insisted on even shorter workdays.
The outcome of those talks was a bitter tonic for watermen, who docked boats from Aberdeen to Smith Island to come to Annapolis yesterday to demonstrate concern for their livelihood.
"I don't think any waterman in the room can live on a coat-and-tie, 8-hour, 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. day," said Daniel Beck, president of the Baltimore County watermen. He said watermen often lose three or four hours of harvest time every day moving crab pots, which are wire traps with bait to attract crabs.
Many watermen acknowledged that female crabs need protection. But as their leader put it, the state's actions went "too far, too soon, too fast."
"We're willing to bite the bullet, but we don't want to swallow the gun," said Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. The restrictions could reduce crabbers' income by one-third this fall, he predicted, which is "right on the borderline of pushing us completely out" of business.
Others insisted that there is no shortage of crabs, and lashed out at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which pressed for crabbing restrictions. Some watermen and their legislators accused the Annapolis environmental group of "fabricating" the crisis so it could boost membership and fund-raising.
"I question every statistic and number," said Andrew Tolley, a Dorchester County crab processor. He and watermen said that crabs fluctuate naturally, and that after a summer lull, crabs are abundant now.
William Goldsborough, the foundation's fisheries scientist, insisted that most scientists agree there are many warning signs that the bay's crab population is in danger. While painful to watermen, the harvest restrictions may ensure their industry's long-term survival, he said.
"The crux of the matter is: Are we going to wait for a collapse before we do something?" he said. "Are we going to gamble with a $187 million industry?"
Mr. Griffin acknowledged that DNR's police force is limited in enforcement ability, but he expects most recreational and commercial crabbers will comply with rules designed to be simple and easy to understand. And he noted that all share a concern for the bay.
On one point, opponents agreed: Maryland's effort to spare female crabs will be wasted unless neighboring Virginia adopts similar catch restrictions. Females migrate down the bay in fall, where they spend the winter before emerging to spawn at the mouth of the bay in Virginia. That state allows its watermen to dredge the slumbering females, and Maryland watermen contend their southern competitors will profit from this state's conservation move.
NEW CRABBING RULES
GOAL: Reduce harvest of female crabs by 20 percent this fall.
SEASON END: Last day is Nov. 15, six weeks early. Season normally runs April 1 to Dec. 31.
COMMERCIAL RESTRICTIONS: Workweek reduced from seven to six days. No harvest on Mondays above Chesapeake Bay Bridge, on Sundays below the bridge. Workday reduced from more than 12 hours to eight. Runs from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Previously, potters could begin harvesting at 4:30 a.m., and trot-liners at 3:30 a.m. Both could work till 5 p.m.
RECREATIONAL RESTRICTIONS: Includes waterfront property owners. Crabbing reduced from seven days a week to three -- Friday through Sunday. Hours reduced to 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.; previously hours were 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. in bay or to sunset in rivers. Until now, shoreline property owners had been permitted to harvest all week from two crab pots each tied to their piers.
Source: Maryland Department of Natural Resources