A new, uncertain season

The Baltimore Sun

ROCK HALL -- With just a few days to go before crabbing season begins, Don Pierce is spending nearly every waking hour getting ready. About 1,000 yellow crab pots are stacked in the yard. A crew of three men is helping him strip rotted plywood off his workboat, the Bri-Steff, to prepare for eight months of work on the Chesapeake Bay.

But for watermen like Pierce, the anticipation is coupled with a sense of dread. The bay's blue crab population has plummeted. Maryland and Virginia are planning to impose new restrictions on crabbing, but no one is certain when they will be issued or how tough they will be. That worries environmentalists, who want to protect one of the Chesapeake's signature species, and watermen, who face added uncertainty in what has always been an unpredictable living.

"The worst part about it is that I have to order my gear now for the fall, and I don't know what they're going to do. They're really dragging their feet," Pierce said of the regulators. "I don't have a field to back me up, or a law office behind me. One hundred percent of my income comes from the Chesapeake Bay."

Natural resources officials in the two states are promising to act soon, but say they need time to consider public input.

Maryland - where the season officially opens April 1 - might ban the keeping of female crabs larger than 6.5 inches to protect the most fertile. The state is also considering bushel limits for both crab-potters and those who use trotlines. And it may close the soft-shell crab season for a couple of weeks and limit the catch of recreational crabbers.

In Virginia, where the season began this month, regulators have changed their soft-shell crab rules to match Maryland's tougher standards on size. This week, they voted to extend by a month the time that a 928-square-mile sanctuary in the bay is off-limits to crabbers.

Virginia regulators will be voting on more significant measures in late April. Proposals include limiting or even ending that state's winter dredge fishery, a decades-old practice in which watermen catch female crabs as they burrow in the mud. The practice has long been banned in Maryland.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources warned watermen in September that the crab population is in trouble. Department officials say they intended to have drafted regulations by now, but are still sifting through public response to the options.

"We've gotten a lot of feedback," said Frank Dawson, assistant secretary for aquatic resources. "Now, we're starting to talk more about the details."

About a thousand Maryland watermen earn at least part of their livelihood crabbing, according to state natural resources officials. Some, like Pierce, still make their entire living on the water - survivors in an industry in which the winds and the tides exact one kind of toll and the financial pressures another. Many other people in the region work for businesses connected to crabbing - seafood processors, restaurants and marinas.

This month, Maryland Watermen's Association President Larry Simns got crabbers together to hash out a proposal that they say would protect the fishery and safeguard their livelihood: a 50-bushel limit on female crabs for potters in the fall and a 30-bushel female limit for trotlines.

Simns said watermen can live with stricter limits on females in summer, but anything more severe than 50 bushels in the fall would close crabbers down. The watermen are proposing no limits on male crabs.

Dawson declined to discuss the negotiations, but said the watermen's proposal did not go far enough. The response frustrated Simns, who said crabbers made a good-faith effort to expedite the process and are now in limbo.

"It ain't a business where you just go to the store and buy what you need for the next day," Simns said. "They're buying now for what they need for the fall, and if they order it, they've got to pay for it."

A waterman can earn two or three thousand dollars a week or more during late summer and fall, but rising expenses for fuel, bait and equipment cut into that. And during several months of the year, there is no work.

Some scientists worry that the states' actions will not do enough to help the crab population rebound. In 2000, when harvests dropped to the worst levels in decades, Maryland and Virginia put in restrictions but the population didn't bounce back.

The two states are taking steps in the right direction, said Tom Miller, a crab scientist at the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science. But what would work best, he said, is a quota. Maryland knows roughly how many crabs are out there because it counts them during its winter dredge survey. And it knows that the population will be stable if crabbers harvest slightly less than half of them. The states could allow crabbing until the quota is reached, he said.

"If you could take the livelihoods of individuals and the cultural heritage off the table, this fishery is crying out for quota-based management," Miller said. But, he added, "it would be universally, politically unacceptable, and it would require a substantial investment in enforcement."

Yonathan Zohar, who directs the university's Center for Marine Biotechnology, agrees that the states' proposals do not go far enough. "We are at a critical point," he said. "If we do nothing about it, it's going to be disastrous."

Zohar's Inner Harbor lab has mapped the routes that female crabs follow in Maryland to reach Virginia's spawning sanctuaries. He is pushing a plan to close those corridors during certain times of the year - an idea not on the table now.

Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, said Maryland officials are looking in the long run at both a quota system and protecting corridors. But first, she said, they must establish short-term measures.

Swanson said the cooperation between Maryland and Virginia this year is unprecedented. But she said Virginia's proposals thus far have been more bold - perhaps because the state had further to go just to be on par with Maryland.

"I don't think Maryland has really put ideas on the table that are really going to cut the harvest," Swanson said. "But I think Maryland will get there."

Maryland watermen and environmentalists have often pointed their fingers south when discussing whom to blame for the drop in crabs. Virginia has long allowed practices that Maryland bans, such as the winter dredge fishery and the taking of pregnant females, known as sponge crabs. It has had more liberal size limits, and its season begins earlier.

But Virginia officials say they are ready to get tough now. If data from the latest dredge survey indicate that the crab population has dropped even more, regulators will consider drastic action, said John M.R. Bull, a spokesman for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

"We will talk about everything, up to and including a moratorium on crabbing in the state of Virginia," Bull said. "We can't take half steps and half measures if the population is crashing."

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

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