The largest fishery in Maryland waters probably is for the blue crab, a species caught by pots, trotlines, traps, handlines and dip nets, and one a Department of Natural Resources official said yesterday might already "be fully utilized."
Yet DNR's Fisheries Service is proposing changes to crabbing regulations that could result in increased catches by recreational crabbers. But there is method in what, to some, might appear to be madness.
Although the proposed changes allow for increases in gear and potential catch for noncommercial crabbers, the changes also include provisions for a $5 license and catch surveys among those hard-core crabbers who fall between dockside hand-liners and commercial operators.
"This whole thing was born out of the fact that we don't know what the recreational impact is, really. We've been guessing," said Pete Jensen, director of policy and development for DNR. "Past surveys have ranged from 10 million to 40 million pounds per year, and that's not very precise when assessing a stock that appears to be fully utilized."
Under the proposed regulations, Jensen said, the $5 licensing fee would be used to cover the costs of surveying the catch by noncommercial crabbers. Jensen estimates the cost of the survey at about $200,000 per year to achieve "statistical credibility" and "get some sense of the universe of people out there crabbing."
Noncommercial crabbers who buy the $5 license could catch two bushels per day rather than the previous recreational limit of one bushel per day. Three bushels would be allowed with a license if two or more people are crabbing from one boat.
Licensed noncommercial crabbers could use up to 1,200 feet of trotline or a combination of 30 collapsible traps or rings.
Jensen said public response to the proposed changes before a public hearing in Cambridge last night has been mainly positive.
"There are always those people who will grumble about having to pay for something that was free before," said Jensen. "But we have not received many complaints, and there has been no organized effort against the changes. People seem to understand that we need to collect this information to better manage the fishery."
At a time when the crab population seems to be at a low ebb, Chesapeake Bay Foundation senior scientist William Goldsborough said he remains skeptical about increased limits.
"I was more comfortable with the one-bushel limit, where they were," Goldsborough said yesterday. "And the people we are hearing from are most concerned about the increase in allowable catch and whether it is advisable at this time."
Last year, the overall crab catch was very poor, Jensen said, and the predictions for this year indicate another weak season.
"The catch last year was poor, no doubt," Jensen said. "But some of that was caused by commercial people who dropped out of the fishery because it was a poor year."
One possible effect of the proposed changes, sources said, is that the noncommercial, $5 license will be more attractive than the commercial fishing licenses that range from $50 to $300.
"If [DNR] were to set a goal of retiring some commercial licenses, that would be good," said Goldsborough. "The bottom line is that we have way too much effort in this fishery, and crabs and crabbers suffer because of it."
The new regulations could go into effect when the crabbing season opens April 1.
A public hearing will be held at the Tawes State Office Building in Annapolis at 7 tonight.
Pub Date: 2/04/99