SALISBURY - An overflow crowd of about 120 angry Eastern Shore watermen crammed into a hotel meeting room last night to protest tough new restrictions proposed for this year's blue crab harvest.
The proposals would give Maryland the nation's strictest size restrictions on catching or possessing blue crabs, including smaller crabs caught legally in other states.
Resistance runs high here on the Lower Shore, the traditional heart of the Chesapeake Bay's blue crab fishery, where many watermen say the new rules, coming on top of restrictions imposed last year, will force them out of business.
Roy Meredith, 32, a Toddville crabber, wondered why the state Department of Natural Resources is proposing even tougher rules this year, since last year's limits on watermen's working hours produced a slight increase in the crab catch from rock-bottom levels of 2000.
"Why not keep what we got, and see if this trend continues and try to work with us instead of against us?" Meredith asked DNR fisheries Director Eric Schwaab. "We can't take no more of this and stay on the water."
"Everybody here wants to make a living. That's all we're after," said Deal Island waterman Grant Corbin, 53. "What I want to know is, if we get a bill into the legislature, will the DNR back a bill to pay us for the money we're losing?"
"Well, I can't stand here and answer that right now," Schwaab said.
The proposed regulations, announced by Gov. Parris N. Glendening in December, are part of a joint effort by Maryland and Virginia to reduce crab catches, giving the bay's crab population a chance to rebound.
Maryland's Chesapeake Bay blue crab harvest has fallen from 55 million pounds in 1993 to a low of 20.2 million pounds in 2000. Last year's catch of 20.5 million pounds was the second worst since the state began keeping reliable records. Scientists say the resilient creatures are so heavily fished that there's danger of a population crash. About half of the bay's adult crabs are caught each year, experts say, and few live long enough to reproduce abundantly.
Fisheries managers from Virginia, Maryland and the Potomac River agreed in 2000 to reduce the proportion of the crab population that is taken by 15 percent over three years.
Last year, the first year covered by the agreement, Maryland watermen were barred from harvesting crabs in November and restricted to a six-day week and, in most cases, to an eight-hour day. Although the Maryland Watermen's Association reluctantly supported those rules, a dissident group of watermen and packing house operators went to court in an unsuccessful attempt to block the limits.
Now Maryland officials want to impose catch limits strict enough to reach the 15 percent reduction this year.
At the start of the season April 1, the minimum legal size would increase from 3 inches to 3 1/2 inches for young crabs on the verge of molting, known as peelers, and from 3 1/2 inches to 4 1/4 inches for soft-shell crabs. Beginning Aug. 1, hard-shell males would have to be 5 1/4 inches rather than 5 inches.
The limits apply to recreational crabbers and watermen.
The state also wants to ban possession of crabs from other states that are smaller than Maryland's new size limits, as well as possession of egg-bearing females from out of state. It's illegal to catch egg-bearing females in Maryland. The bans would apply to watermen, seafood processors, fish markets and restaurants.
The season would be extended to Nov. 15, and some watermen would be able to work longer hours under the proposed new rules.
Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, has said the group can't support the state's proposal, warning that the restrictions on out-of-state crabs would be "the nail in the coffin" of Maryland crab-picking houses.
An economic study released last month supported the association's claim, finding the proposed rules could cost more than 500 workers their jobs and put some crab processors out of business.
Watermen also say the new limits would put them at a competitive disadvantage, because crabs too small for Maryland watermen to keep would migrate to Virginia waters in the fall, where Virginia watermen could legally catch them.
"We all wonder what these meetings will accomplish," Simns said last night, noting that Glendening has said he will use his executive authority, if need be, to achieve a 15 percent harvest reduction this year. "It appears that the die has already been cast, with little room for maneuvering."
Other public hearings will be held at 7 tonight at Anne Arundel Community College and Thursday night at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons. DNR will also collect written comments until Feb. 25. Schwaab said DNR officials hope to complete regulations by March 12, in time for the start of the season April 1.