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Living with the crab

The Baltimore Sun

HOOPERS ISLAND -- For more than a century, the blue crab has sustained life on this marshy sliver of land between the Chesapeake Bay and the Honga River. Income from the harvest pays the mortgage, the electric bill, the tab at the grocery store, even college tuition.

But islanders fear that their way of life - long made precarious by unpredictable weather, rising equipment costs and dwindling crab populations - is about to be regulated out of existence.

Last week, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources announced it will end the season for female crabs Oct. 23, about seven weeks early. That will slash income for crabbers here at the most lucrative time - when the female crabs are migrating along the coast of the Lower Eastern Shore to Virginia, where they spawn. The state also is imposing limits on how many bushels of females watermen can take in September and October, further cutting their income.

"The main stream of our income is this crab, and without it, we are just destroyed," said Thomas "Bubby" Powley, a crabber who also owns a crab-picking house. "There is just no way we can live with the regulations that they are suggesting."

Founded in 1667 as a farming village, Hoopers Island - actually a skinny chain of islands so close together they are almost a peninsula - was once covered with tobacco and wheat crops. But by the end of the Civil War, island men had taken up life on the water, first oystering and later crabbing. Island women picked crabmeat.

The biology of the Chesapeake Bay favored Hoopers - lots of female crabs led to processing houses with names like Phillips, Hall and Ruark, families that remain here to this day. Nine of Dorchester County's 14 seafood processors are on Hoopers Island.

But the bounty that has enriched the island now imperils it. Scientists say the female crab needs to be saved to propagate the species, and females are nearly all of what islanders catch each fall. So, while the crab restrictions will affect all watermen, they will disproportionately hurt Hoopers and the lower bay.

Natural Resources Assistant Secretary Frank Dawson acknowledges as much but says the state must take action to reduce the female crab harvest by a third to revive the species. The crab population has plummeted, a drop scientists attribute both to overfishing and the bay's poor health.

"It's difficult to have the level of reduction of female harvests that we're talking about and not have certain areas more affected than others," Dawson said. "Crabs haven't been getting fixed for the better part of this decade. They just have not come back."

Watermen here disagree. Several say they had their best season in years during 2007, even though the harvest baywide was the smallest in decades. They say that, if the blue crab must be protected, the state should create a deep-water sanctuary from the northernmost part of the bay to the southern edge of Maryland's waters, spreading the pain among all crabbers.

But Dawson said few crabs are caught in the deep water. There's no data to suggest that banning deep-water crabbing would bring back the species, he said.

On the island, where white clapboard homes are set back from one-lane roads, the 500 or so full-time residents worry that the effort to save the crabs will destroy the crabber - and the island.

Powley's family is typical of many here: A third-generation waterman, he grew up helping his father crab. His mother, Gerrie Flowers, came from one of the island's earliest families. When his father died, she took on more hours at the crab-picking factory; in her prime, she could pick a hundred pounds of meat a day.

Powley's brother, Larry "Boo" Powley, once crabbed but now catches bait for crabbers; their sister, Bonnie, runs a soft crab business nearby. Like many island fathers, Thomas and Larry Powley have steered their sons away from water life. Tommy's son is a businessman. Larry's is a chef.

Regulations have already cut into Larry Powley's business. Faced with restrictions on the "good" fish he can catch and sell for human consumption - like rockfish - he has resorted to "scrapfish." He catches shiny mud shad to ship to Louisiana for crayfish bait. The river herring are sent to Japan to lure seals. But his real money comes from fishing for the menhaden that crabbers use to bait traps.

If crabbers shut down for two months, he'll have to shut down, too - and lay off three workers.

"I'm too old to go anywhere or do anything else," Larry Powley said. "It's pretty bad when you see your way of life going down the tubes, and you can't do a thing about it."

About two dozen crab potters remain on the island, each employing one or two helpers. Overall, the island's population has shrunk during the past two decades as young people moved away for mainland jobs. Real estate speculators have torn down old houses and replaced them with brick structures filled with gleaming windows, some of which are vacant or used only part of the year.

Frank King, owner of the Island Pride grocery and gas station, says he's grateful for the vacationers. But without the business that comes from crabbers' income, he says, he will have to close - and lay off six employees.

"I'm going to tell you flat-out, it's going to kill us," King said of the new rules. "This is a fishing village. And I can't sustain them if these guys can't sustain me."

When King took over the store eight years ago, he adapted to the island's rhythm - a lean winter, followed by a good summer and an even more lucrative fall. During the winter, crabbers buy items like dish soap and cereal on credit; they pay up in the fall, when the cash comes in.

The island's main restaurant, too, will suffer. Old Salty's mainstay is watermen. The eatery also gets customers from the tours that come through to watch pickers - most of them Mexican women - tease the fluffy meat out of the crab. At least 18 bus tours are scheduled for the fall.

Most of them will be canceled, said manager Jay Newcomb: there won't be anything to see.

In addition to trying to persuade Maryland to roll back restrictions, the island's crab processors are lobbying Congress to let several hundred workers return to this country each year under a visa program known as H2B. Most of the processing houses got their workers for this season, but legislation still has not passed to let them come back next season.

Now that the workers are here, the processors are obligated to pay them - even when they have nothing to do.

It's enough to keep Tommy Powley glued to his cell phone, telling everyone who will listen that the island's way of life is dying. He wants to get back on his boat, the Maybe-Baby, and start the season, but the more pressing business is to make sure there is a season at all.

"I didn't want my son to get into this business because I knew it was a dying business," Powley said. "But no way did I think that it would be the state that would destroy it."

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

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