State and federal biologists are urging a continuation of crabbing restrictions in the Chesapeake Bay, though a study found no evidence the bay's crab population is threatened.
An 18-month study, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, concludes that Maryland and Virginia watermen and recreational crabbers have not put a big dent in the bay's crab stock, despite a five-fold increase in their effort to catch them over the past 50 years.
Weather, rather than fishing pressure, is mainly responsible for the boom-and-bust gyrations in crab harvests from year to year, according to the study. Its conclusions, which ratify preliminary findings released in January, were presented yesterday in Annapolis to a group of biologists.
"We don't see any major problems right now," said M. Elizabeth Gillelan, director of NOAA's Chesapeake Bay office. While recent surveys indicate crabs declined from 1990 through 1995, they simply returned to a more normal level from unprecedented abundance the previous decade.
Last year yielded a bumper crop of baby crabs, which began reaching harvestable size in late summer and fall.
The study found no long-term decline in crab abundance, and no significant increase in catch of females.
The study recommends that catch restrictions adopted recently by the two states be maintained.
Annual harvests of 75 million to 85 million pounds in the past 15 years are approaching the limit of what estimates indicate the bay's crab population can sustain.
Watermen also could earn more for their efforts if current restrictions are maintained or even tightened, researchers suggested.
Even so, Maryland's fisheries director, Dot Leonard, predicted yesterday that the study would prompt at least some watermen to call for easing state crabbing limits.
"Not while I'm on watch," Leonard said of suggestions that crabbing restrictions should be lifted. Recalling the way lax regulation contributed to the depletion of striped bass, or rockfish, the fisheries official said she wanted to "leave [crab rules] in place a few years and see how they play out."
Some scientists also questioned the study's optimistic assessment.
Rom Lipcius, crab biologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, said the report contradicts evidence from his state that the bay's female crabs are less abundant than normal.
The population could be depleted if some natural disaster such as a hurricane wipes out reproduction one year, he said, adding that he believes crabbing restrictions should be tightened.
Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening imposed emergency catch limits in this state in fall 1995, saying the bay's stock is threatened by increased catches of female crabs.
Those restrictions, bitterly opposed by watermen, were eased during 1996. But the state still reduced crabbing from seven to six days a week and ended the season a month earlier than usual.
"It was an over-reaction to a perceived scarcity," said J. C. Tolley, owner of a seafood processing business in southern Dorchester County.
Pub Date: 12/11/96