To preserve the crab industry


WITH THE Chesapeake blue crab industry in jeopardy of collapse, it's hard to see why short-sighted Maryland watermen refuse to agree to reduce their catch.

Contrary to the political blather that persuaded cowardly state legislators to reject restrictions last week, there's ample science behind the moves to reduce crab harvest levels.

The population of female crabs has declined 80 percent over the past 12 years, while the average male crab is smaller and less virile. Catches in recent years are at all-time lows.

A new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the bay crab numbers are so low that one strong storm could cause the entire population to crash.

For the past two years, Virginia and Maryland have worked for a joint program to halt the decline and restrict both commercial watermen and recreational crabbers. The aim is to double the number of spawning crabs in the bay.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening acted promptly to impose limits on Maryland watermen when legislators refused to do so. The workday will be limited to eight hours, and the season may well be closing a month earlier than Nov. 30.

Virginia didn't reduce the workday for its watermen, but cut the workweek to five days and imposed tighter limits on winter dredging of crabs (which doesn't occur in Maryland).

Maryland's measures would have been less painful if the legislative committee had heeded common sense and enacted limits immediately. Now, the governor's regulations can't take effect until July 23 -- halfway into the season.

Both states put limits on recreation crabbing. Both recognize the need for conservation if this $150 million industry is to be saved.

The restrictions are imperfect and may be too weak to achieve the goal. That will mean tougher limits and tougher times for watermen next year.

The bay crab's life cycle requires different measures in the two states to sustain the entire population. But further delay and finger-pointing is harmful for all.

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