Governors act to cut harvest of crabs

The Baltimore Sun

COLONIAL BEACH, Va. -- The governors of Maryland and Virginia have agreed to take immediate steps to reduce by one-third the amount of female blue crabs harvested from the Chesapeake Bay - an unprecedented joint effort to stop the skid of the bay's iconic species.

Maryland officials said they are prepared to offer other work to watermen to make up for lost income. Natural resources officials pointed out that there is $3 million in the capital budget to help the seafood industry. Some of it could be used to hire watermen to build oyster reefs or start aquaculture businesses, officials said.

"It's not us trying to get them a welfare check. It's doing things that are in their interest, too," said Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin.

Gov. Martin O'Malley and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, both Democrats, stood on the banks of the Potomac River in this tiny town yesterday to declare their determination to fight the precipitous drop in the population of the Chesapeake blue crab.

"The crab has more than an economic impact. It truly is a symbol that unites the two states," Kaine said. "When positive steps are taken, this is a very resilient species that could come back very quickly. We need to take the steps."

The two governors said they had charged their natural resources agencies with imposing restrictions to reduce the female harvest, a reduction that could be achieved by bushel limits, bans on crabbing during parts of the season or other means. They said they recognize that the restrictions would be a hardship for watermen but said they had to do something to try to revive the species.

"What will happen to our watermen and their livelihoods if we fail to take any action?" O'Malley asked. "The right thing for our watermen is that we act now, and that is what we are doing."

Crabbing is one of the bay's few surviving commercial fisheries. About a thousand watermen in Maryland earn all or part of their living on the water, state records show. Many more people in the region work for businesses connected to crabbing, such as seafood processors, restaurants and marinas.

Some Maryland watermen have said that cutting the harvest so much would force them out of business. Told yesterday that the state might offer other employment, several showed little enthusiasm for the idea.

Ben Parks, who heads the Dorchester County chapter of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said his members aren't likely to be interested in temporary state jobs.

"Watermen don't want to be given work," Parks said. "Watermen don't want a handout."

Kent Island waterman Billy Crook has had work through the government-funded Oyster Recovery Project, which among other things has paid watermen to move oysters in the bay. He said he would have little interest in similar work.

"We barely made it last year, and now we've got huge diesel prices to deal with," Crook said. "It's the worst I've seen in 31 years of working the water."

Jay L. Newcomb, a Dorchester County councilman who manages a crab processing plant on Hoopers Island, said the offer of state-financed work amounts to little more than "patronizing watermen."

Last year's crab harvest in the Maryland part of the bay and its rivers was just under 22 million pounds - the lowest in three decades. Female blue crabs make up about half the harvest in Maryland's portion of the bay and most of it in Virginia's.

Though the waters of the Chesapeake are in Maryland and Virginia, longtime observers could recall no similar coordination between the two states. In recent decades, the two states have generally blamed each other for the decline of blue crabs.

Maryland watermen and scientists have pointed out that Virginia takes most of the female crabs harvested from the bay. Regulators there have allowed watermen to take pregnant females, known as sponge crabs, and to dredge for crabs in winter, when the females are hibernating in the mud.

Virginians have complained that Maryland watermen harvest too many females in the fall, when the crabs are migrating to the lower bay. Because of that, they say, fewer crabs can reach the sanctuaries Virginia has established in the Chesapeake Bay's main stem.

Relations turned especially frosty in 2001, when both states imposed restrictions on crabbing. Because a Maryland legislative committee blocked immediate approval of the regulations, Gov. Parris N. Glendening decided to close the crab season a month early in hopes of reducing the harvest. Virginia did not follow suit. Watermen in places such as Smith Island could look across Tangier Sound and watch their Virginia competitors take crabs that otherwise might have gone into their baskets.

Scientists and regulators in Maryland who have long advocated looking at the crab as a baywide species ee the dialogue with Virginia as a positive sign.

"It tells us something about the state of the resource - that we have to take drastic steps. But it also tells us something about the leadership we're under, in both states, that they can work together to do that," said Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "They share a common philosophy: that if they don't take action, there's no one else to blame."

Asked to recall a time when the two states cooperated, several longtime Maryland scientists noted the 1980s, when William Donald Schaefer and Gerald Baliles, both Democrats, were governors. Boesch said Glendening tried to work with Virginia on issues such as agricultural pollution but he faced resistance from two successive Republican governors, George Allen and James Gilmore III.

Kaine and O'Malley, in contrast, seem to share the same political philosophy. They have spoken on the phone several times about crabs, and their natural resources staffs are in communication at least twice a month, officials said.

Bill Matuszeski, former director of the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program, said now is a "unique time" for the bay because Kaine, O'Malley and Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, also a Democrat, are working together instead of pointing fingers at one another.

"This is a good sign," he said. "The governors of Maryland and Virginia are saying ... that this is essentially one crab population, and that it is not respectful of state boundaries."

Sun reporter Bradley Olson contributed to this article.

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