Crabbing for fun and food on the Chesapeake Bay could become a little more expensive under a bill introduced in Annapolis last week.
Maryland legislators on the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a tri-state panel concerned with restoring the bay, want to require "serious" recreational crabbers to purchase "noncommercial" licenses from the state Department of Natural Resources. The permits would cost $5 for Marylanders and $10 for others.
The aim of the legislation is to give biologists and regulators more information about how many blue crabs are being taken from the bay. Scientists are locked in debate about whether the bay's crab stocks are plentiful, as a recent federal study suggests, or dwindling from overfishing, as other research has suggested.
No one knows how many recreational crabbers there are or how much they take because they are not required to buy licenses or report their take. Surveys suggest that as many as 500,000 people make 2.5 million trips to the bay or rivers every year.
Estimates of the recreational catch vary wildly, however, from a low of 11 million pounds a year up to 40 million pounds annually -- or almost as much as commercial crabbers take in an average year.
"It is very important that we get a handle on what the recreational crabber is taking," said Del. John F. Wood Jr., a St. Mary's County Democrat, who is chairman of the bay commission's Maryland delegation.
Similar legislation has died in the General Assembly the past two years, as opponents complained the license requirement would spoil what has been a freewheeling summer pastime. Others charged the state with trying to raise revenues.
Sponsors say they hope this measure will succeed because it exempts so-called "chicken-neckers," the term for casual crabbers who use chicken necks for bait and catch crabs with dip nets. Anyone catching fewer than three dozen crabs at a time would be exempt.
A noncommerical license would be required, regardless of how many crabs are caught, if the crabber uses more than 300 feet of trotline, or more than 10 crab traps or rings. Licensed noncommercial crabbers would be limited to a bushel a day per person, or two bushels per boat.
Recreational crabbers are forbidden to sell their catch, and the bill would impose a fine of up to $500 for anyone caught selling or knowingly buying.
The proposed crabbing license is similar to one abolished two years ago by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. As many as 16,000 noncommercial licenses were held at the time.
DNR officials now estimate that nearly 84,000 people would have to buy the licenses, with about three-fourths of those going to Maryland residents. DNR, which has not taken a position on the bill, estimates it would raise about $500,000 a year in revenues.
Fees would be earmarked for research and surveys on crabbing, said Ann Pesiri Swanson, the bay commission's executive director.
Del. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Republican who represents the Lower Eastern Shore, opposed an earlier effort to license all recreational crabbers. But he said he could support this measure because it exempts "chicken-neckers" and focuses on serious recreational crabbers who catch the most.
"We don't have a handle, we don't have any idea how much they're taking," he said.