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Sizing up the state of crabs in the bay


Officer Beth McVeigh patrols the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries in a small Boston Whaler, fighting crime with a metal ruler.

This summer, McVeigh and other Maryland Natural Resources Police officers have been putting the squeeze on crabbers who don't follow a new rule that increased the minimum size for male hard crabs to 5 1/4 inches.

More stringent crabbing regulations went into effect Aug. 1 as part of a campaign to leave more crabs in the bay to spawn, with the goal of doubling the bay's depleted crabbing population by the end of next year's season.

For crabbers, the quarter-inch ncrease means tossing back some of their scarce catch and standing aside as police poke through bushels looking for violations.

For officers like McVeigh, the law means handling evidence that pinches and writing more waterlogged citations.

"It's a messy job, some days," McVeigh said one recent Saturday.

Like many of her mornings, this day begins at 6 alongside a pier at Sandy Point State Park. She idles her boat near a family of recreational crabbers and draws her ruler.

"Hi, there. How long have you all been out here?" McVeigh asks.

"About a half-hour or so," replies Rick Ramsey of Glen Arm, speaking in the tone of a driver who has been pulled over for speeding. "Haven't caught anything yet."

"When you do, make sure you flip your crab over to measure, because they're obviously curved on top," she says. "Do you have something to measure with?"

Not waiting for a reply, she marks off 5 1/4 inches in black ballpoint pen on the pier.

"Good luck to you," she calls before motoring away.

As she spends the morning on the bay, McVeigh, 32, a police officer for four years, explains her ticketing philosophy: People who genuinely aren't aware of the new law should be warned. Crabbers who want to see what they can get away with should be ticketed.

Fines for violators start at $150 and climb to $350.

McVeigh said she can tell if crabbers know about the size change by the way they act when they spot a police boat. One giveaway is if they plunk crabs back into the water as she approaches.

Commercial crabbers are the ones who tend to get - well, crabby - when they see a police boat chugging toward them.

They have good reason to be frustrated: The past few harvests have broken record lows - falling from 55 million pounds in 1993 to 20.2 million pounds last year.

The minimum-size increase for the male hard crab, plus new rules that ban the possession of egg-bearing females and set a 3 1/2 -inch limit on peelers and a 4-inch minimum on soft-shell crabs, may cut Maryland's crab intake by more than 17 percent next year, officials said.

While the population rebuilds, crabbers are likely in for seasons of disappointing hauls. Most of the crabbers McVeigh stopped Saturday had little to show for their time on the bay.

"Nothing so far," commercial crabber Louis Crook says as McVeigh approaches his boat.

Crook, a Kent Island resident, said he and fellow crabbers have been tossing back an average of 15 percent - sometimes as much as 45 percent - of their hauls because of the rules.


Later, as McVeigh heads deeper into the Chesapeake, she says the crabbers become "almost like friends - almost."

"They still know I won't hesitate to write 'em up," she says.

Commercial crabbers generally have been good about obeying the new regulations, McVeigh says, in part because Baltimore-area buyers don't want small crabs.

Most of the rule-breakers she sees are crabbers, commercial or recreational, who are catching for themselves.

Such was the case with Edwin Dean, an Annapolis resident with a limited commercial license, meaning he can drop 50 crab pots.

Dean and two friends spent Saturday morning near the mouth of the Magothy River crabbing for the night's dinner. Unlike the dozen or so other crabbers McVeigh encounters that day, the group has a full bushel of blue crabs.

"Hi, there. How long have you all been out here?" she says as she approaches Dean's boat.

Dean says he has been stopped about four or five times this season, usually by McVeigh. They make small talk, but McVeigh has her eyes on the blue crabs.

"Mind if I check your haul?" she asks.

McVeigh dons a glove and culls the crabs. One catches a piece of flesh through the thick glove.

While she checks sizes, a confident Dean boasts he can "eyeball" a 5-incher with no problem - "don't even need to measure that anymore," he says.

The 5-inch minimum had been in place for more than 30 years before it increased last month, Maryland Natural Resources officials said.

"The hardest thing is getting used to eyeing 5 1/4 ," Dean says as McVeigh tosses a second undersized crab into a pool of water collected on her boat.

"All right, who's the culler? She's got two already," Dean complains to the two men crabbing with him.

Then two more. And another two. During the next 10 minutes, McVeigh pulls out 11 undersized crabs.

Holding an especially tiny one in her gloved hand, McVeigh looks up and says, "C'mon, guys, you know that's not right."

With the rescued crabs scuttling around her feet, McVeigh explains that she is going to remeasure the crabs to see how many don't even make the old size minimum and decide whether to issue a citation.

She weighs her choices and measures the crabs again - five are under 5 inches. "If I thought his measurer was off ... if I thought he didn't know," she says. "But he was just being greedy."

With that, McVeigh begins filling out a $150 citation - the only one she will issue that morning. She second-guesses her decision to write Dean's citation all morning, but she says she knows what she is doing will ultimately help the weak crab population.

"I know it's important," she says of the new minimum size. "But there are people who make a living out here, and I guess I'm a little worried that we're not going to get our crabs from Maryland."

Crabbers' view

Crabbers share her ambivalence. Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said most crabbers appreciate the need for the new minimum size.

But he added, "Where people are really hurting is the lower bay, and they're going to be much less understanding than up near Baltimore, where it doesn't hurt so bad."

Crab-picking houses in places such as Talbot, Dorchester and Somerset counties, which depend on smaller crabs, have been "devastated" by the regulations, he said.

"But if you look at the overall health of the crab population, we're going to end up having more big crabs in the long run," he added. "Maybe crabbers will benefit by catching them later. But that's a maybe."

At the end of her morning patrol, back at Sandy Point, McVeigh decides to check back with the family at the end of the pier she stopped nearly three hours earlier.

"Having much luck?" she asks Ramsey on approach.

One of the children walks over with a cooler, and McVeigh measures their handful of crabs. She plops four back into the water, but none sink to the floor. Crabs die quickly after being iced, McVeigh tells the family.

"You know, you really have to measure these guys carefully," she says.

"I'm with you," Ramsey says quietly. "We just eyeballed them, really."

"You just - you really do have to measure," she says, dismayed. "If you just guess, it won't be close enough, and you'll get a ticket and everyone will have a rotten day."

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