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State watermen protest female crab restrictions

The Baltimore Sun

Hundreds of watermen packed into an Annapolis church last night to protest the state's proposed restrictions on crabbing.

"I'm going to have to put a for-sale sign in the window and sell everything," said Mark Phillips, who crabs out of Hoopers Island. "This will completely put us out of business."

Natural Resources officials said Wednesday that they plan to impose rules to reduce the harvest of female blue crabs by 20 percent to 40 percent in hopes of boosting a struggling population. About half of Maryland's blue crab harvest is female crabs.

Officials stressed yesterday that they have not yet decided which of several rules to adopt. But to the 1,000 or so watermen who make at least some of their living on the Chesapeake Bay, none of the proposals would be easy to endure.

One would prohibit catching female crabs larger than 6 1/2 inches so the big crabs could reproduce. Another would ban soft-shell crabbing for two weeks. The state is also proposing a bushel limit on female crabs of six or seven per boat per day for six months of the season, or even a ban on catching females during April and May.

Officials clarified yesterday that one option includes banning the harvest of female crabs in Maryland's portion of the Chesapeake and its rivers beginning in October for the rest of the season. Previously, the department had considered only a two-week closure.

Officials acknowledge the measures are stiff, but that the female blue crab needs protection. Last year's Maryland crab harvest was just less than 22 million pounds -- the lowest in three decades.

Virginia officials are also preparing to announce crab restrictions later this month.

"Our view is that what we are working on with the state of Virginia is something that is necessary and appropriate," said John Griffin, Maryland's Department of Natural Resources secretary.

Recreational crabbers, too, were upset about the restriction, which includes a proposed ban on their ability to catch females. The department has made an exception for soft crabs.

Both groups also expressed frustration that this week's proposal was more stringent than what was proposed in February.

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