Maryland natural resources officials proposed new crabbing rules yesterday that were not as strict as watermen had feared, but will disproportionately hurt crabbers on the Lower Eastern Shore.
The state is proposing to close the blue crab season for harvesting females Oct. 23 - about seven weeks early. That's the time of year that many Lower Shore watermen have enjoyed big catches because females are migrating down the Chesapeake Bay to spawn.
It's also a busy time for the state's remaining crab-picking houses, which buy much of the female crab meat and pack it for shipping around the country.
Maryland also is proposing a "tiered" system of bushel limits on females that is based on the average of a waterman's catch over the past four years. The limits are generally higher than a seven-bushel limit the state had considered.
"We feel like we're moving forward with a package that is predictable, reliable and enforceable," said Frank Dawson, assistant natural resources secretary. "Obviously, we're not happy that it will affect the livelihood of the watermen."
Maryland Watermen's Association President Larry Simns said the rules would cause economic hardship. "The people who live from Tilghman Island south are going to get hit the hardest, and they got hit hardest last time," Simns said. "And that's not fair."
Since fall, when baywide surveys showed the blue crab population is in trouble, Virginia and Maryland have been working together on ways to reduce the harvest.
Last week, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley announced that they were directing their state agencies to reduce the crab harvests in each state by a third.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission will vote today on the state's measures.
Yesterday's Maryland proposal was far less restrictive than earlier ones the agency had floated, among them a seven-bushel limit on females during certain months of the season.
Instead, under the tiered limits, a waterman who has averaged 40 bushels or more of females will have a set limit of 50 bushels, and one with an average of 20 to 40 bushels will have a limit of 30. The bushel limits will be in place for September and October.
The state decided not to adopt a ban on catching crabs larger than 6.5 inches and a two-week closure of the lucrative soft-crab fishery.
Some scientists said they worry that the agency's proposal doesn't go far enough in protecting female crabs. "They are under a lot of pressure to be just conservative enough," said Thomas Miller, a crab scientist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "They're not being allowed to build in a big safety factor here."
Miller is concerned that the agency is not accounting for the fact that watermen who are restricted from fishing during part of the season or one area of the bay will increase their efforts in another time or place.
Yonathan Zohar, who directs the Center for Marine Biotechnology and has been leading a multimillion-dollar crab research project, questioned how effective the rules would be without the maximum-size limit.
"There is no doubt that the size limit is a known strategy that really helps in that situation," Zohar said. "It allows more females to produce offspring."
Yesterday's proposal also would ban recreational crabbers from catching females, except for soft crabs.
The agency is submitting the proposed regulations as emergency legislation, which must go through a legislative committee.
If the committee does not agree to the emergency rules, the Department of Natural Resources said that it would propose rules for later in the season in which there would be no bushel limits, and the season would close Oct. 11.