Panel suggests limit on bay crab harvest


The Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee recommended a bay-wide harvest limit of 54 million pounds of crabs yesterday as some 175 watermen stood watch in a crowded state hearing room in Annapolis.

The crabbers, summoned by Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, complained bitterly during the day-long meeting that scientists who proposed the limit used incorrect information to create their complicated statistical model and failed to consider the effect predators have on the crab population.

"If my daughter turned in a paper like this in school, she'd get an F," a waterman shouted from the rear of the Joint Hearing Room in the Legislative Services Building.

Simns said he had asked his members to attend the meeting to "get educated on how these things happen."

The committee, which is nearing the end of a two-year study of the Chesapeake Bay blue crab fishery, is to make recommendations to the Maryland and Virginia legislatures in January. Yesterday, it was considering what it termed a threshold - the maximum amount of crabs that can be fished before the population collapses - as well as "target" limits, a lower amount designed to provide a cushion.

Based on a presentation by Tom Miller, a University of Maryland scientist on the panel, the committee agreed on 54 million pounds as the "threshold."

Miller was peppered with questions from watermen, who challenged his statistical models and the dredge surveys in both states that are used to determine crab populations.

They also complained that he had not considered the impact of predators such as rockfish.

"We're seeing plenty of little crabs in the spring, but we're not catching them later. They're not there," said Tom Peterson, a Rock Hall waterman. "What's happening to them? Something's eating them."

Although watermen believe the growing rockfish population is at least partly to blame for the decline in the number of crabs, there is no scientific evidence to prove it, Miller said,

"We can throw our hands in the air and do nothing, or we can say these are our best estimates and our best scientific evidence and we are working hard to improve our information," he said.

The advisory committee is to schedule meetings in Maryland and Virginia to hear from watermen, seafood processors and others on how to reduce the harvest.

Suggestions include increasing the legal size at which crabs can be caught, reducing the amount of gear a waterman can use and setting lower quotas.

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