Maryland's crabbing restrictions this fall appear to be working, though perhaps a little too well.
The catch of female crabs -- which the emergency limits are intended to protect -- has returned to normal after almost three years of above-average landings, Department of Natural Resources officials told a legislative committee in Annapolis yesterday.
But some watermen and seafood dealers say the restrictions imposed last month on hours and days when crabs may be caught have reduced the overall catch more than state officials intended.
"They've done more than what they needed to do," said Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. He urged state officials to relax the restrictions next year, if not right away.
Worried about surveys showing that the Chesapeake Bay's female crab population has declined in recent years as more are being caught, state officials last month adopted emergency regulations restricting commercial and recreational crabbing for the rest of this year.
The rules, which took effect in mid-September, limit commercial crabbing to six days a week, eight hours a day, down from 14 hours a day all week long. Recreational crabbing, normally allowed all week long, has been curtailed to three days a week, from Friday through Sunday.
Crabbing season is set to end six weeks early, on Nov. 15.
Intended to reduce the catch of female crabs by 20 percent, the rules appear to have depressed the harvest at least that much, state officials say.
"They were more effective than anyone thought they'd be," John R. Griffin, natural resources secretary, told members of the House Environmental Matters Committee.
Mr. Griffin said state officials had feared watermen would adjust their harvest methods and blunt the effect of the restrictions. "Maybe we overcompensated," he said.
Some watermen's catches have declined by 40 percent or more, Mr. Simns said, because the 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily time restriction has prevented them from adjusting to poor weather and changing tides.
With the new restrictions in effect for only two weeks, September's crab catch was 12 percent below the average for that month since 1981, according to preliminary DNR figures. Watermen reported catching 6.9 million pounds of crabs.
Female crabs accounted for about 45 percent of the overall harvest, noted W. P. Jensen, DNR fisheries director. That is about average, he said, and a decline from the past two years, when females made up more than half the total fall catch. The overall crab catch through September has been about 31 million pounds, Mr. Jensen said. He predicted the total 1995 harvest would not exceed 40 million pounds, which is well below the average annual catch of 46 million pounds.
Problems that have cropped up this fall will be taken into account in modifying restrictions for next season, state officials said.
Virginia officials this week predicted that state's crab catch this year will be the lowest in 36 years.
Mr. Griffin said news of the poor Virginia crab harvest increased the likelihood that that state would join Maryland in imposing some new restrictions.