Harvest pinched

The Baltimore Sun

RUMBLEY - Dawn isn't even a rumor in the east when the Barbara J pulls away from the dock in this tiny watermen's village on the lower Eastern Shore. With his helpers napping in bunks below, Mark Somers pilots his sleek 45-foot workboat through the darkness into the Chesapeake Bay. His only companion for now is Max, a Jack Russell terrier curled up under a table in the cabin.

It promises to be sunny and warm - not ideal for catching crabs in the fall. "You want it blowing hard and cool," Somers says.

But he needs to be crabbing this day because it's shaping up to be a bitter harvest - cut short by government regulations. In an attempt to rebuild what scientists say is a perilously low population of blue crabs in the bay, state officials have decreed that female crabs may not be caught after Oct. 22.

With "sooks," or females, making up 90 percent or more of his catch this time of year, Somers says the rule will force him to stop working just as the seasonal migration of crabs down the bay reaches its peak. There won't be enough male crabs to make it worth his while to continue.

"They take and they never give back," Somers complains of government's increasingly restrictive fishing regulations.

Most years, in five or six weeks of hard work up until around Thanksgiving, Somers says, he can make a third of his annual income, fishing hundreds of submerged crab traps or "pots" strung out across miles of open water. This year, he is out before the crabs are migrating en masse because he wants to recoup a little of what he's about to lose. His expenses don't stop, he points out, including payments on the workboat named for his wife that he had built last year.

Natural resource officials acknowledge the harvest restrictions impose a hardship on watermen, especially those like Somers in the lower bay, for whom catching crabs in the fall is a staple of their livelihood. But annual surveys have indicated the bay's crab population has been depressed for years and was in jeopardy of declining even more. So Maryland and Virginia agreed to reduce the harvest of female crabs by one-third. To rebuild the stock, officials said, it was necessary to curtail the catching of females so more of them could survive to bear their young.

"We're not in the business of putting watermen out of business," says Frank Dawson, an assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "We're about providing a sustainable stock for a sustainable [seafood] industry." But sometimes, he says, "you don't do that without pain."

The normally uneasy relationship between those who fish for a living and those who regulate them to protect the fish has become especially fractious this year. Watermen contend that state biologists in Maryland suppressed the results of their annual winter survey of bay crabs until after the state had settled on its catch restrictions. That survey showed an increase in juvenile crabs, an abundance watermen say they saw through spring and summer.

"What it does is make watermen not trust anything the department does," says Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

State officials deny keeping anything from the watermen. While juveniles were up, last winter's count showed a "dangerously low" population of spawning-age crabs, says Lynn Fegley, a state fisheries biologist. That reinforced a belief that action was needed to reduce the female catch. Maryland coordinated its crabbing restrictions with Virginia, which is banning the catching of females after Oct. 26 in its part of the bay. Virginia also is eliminating its winter crab season, when watermen dredge the slumbering creatures - mostly females - from the bottom.

Officials say it's too soon to say whether the new rules are working. Virginia's marine resources agency reports a significantly reduced catch through July, but the harvest reported by Maryland watermen was actually higher than at the same time last year. State officials caution that the reports are incomplete, and they're checking the accuracy because the numbers don't seem to square with what they've seen and heard around the bay.

Simns believes the harvest baywide is off. Other factors are hurting the watermen as well, he says. Cash-strapped consumers are buying less crabmeat. And crabmeat processors have been unable to get enough immigrant laborers, so they've cut back how many bushels of crabs they buy from watermen.

"We're not saying we still don't need to do anything," Simns says of the catch restrictions. "We're arguing about how they went about it."

State officials say they had few choices this year for reducing the female catch but are willing to consider other measures next year.

Somers, for his part, says he has caught more crabs so far this year than he did last. He focuses in spring and summer on catching molting "peeler" crabs, which he keeps in "shedding tanks" at his dock until they doff their shells and he can sell them as soft-shell crabs. Such crabs get a higher price, as much as $36 a dozen for jumbos in New York, but they take extra time tending. The females he's catching now bring $20 to $22 per bushel.

"Always, since I've been doing this, there was peaks and valleys," Somers says of vagaries in the crab catch. He has been crabbing full time 24 of his 43 years and part time in his youth. Through it all, he says, he never worried about making a living - until now. Increasing regulation of fishing is making it harder, he says.

He has two sons, 9 and 10, and as much as he loves working on the water, he says, "I'm scared to encourage them to do this, the way things are headed."

For now, Somers and his helpers work in a carefully choreographed rhythm, gathering what they can. With the Holland's Island light in the distance, he guides the boat up to a buoy, then reels in a rope connecting a crab pot to the float.

What follows is reminiscent of an assembly line. One of Somers' crew, 27-year-old Jake Jones, hoists the crab pot on board. He dumps out the dead fish used as bait, then flips the trap over so Lewis Monzeglio, 42, can drop in a fresh bait fish.

Next, Jones shakes out the crabs into a shallow wooden box, closes the pot back up and dumps it overboard. Monzeglio scoops up the scrambling crabs and tosses them into a bushel basket.

The entire process takes less than 30 seconds and is repeated more than 100 times in rapid succession as Somers nudges the boat from buoy to buoy set in a line across about two miles of water. Then they motor to the next string of pots and start again.

"Nobody else does it faster," boasts Jones. Through it all, the dog Max patrols the boat, hopping onto the rail, barking into the wind and keeping a close eye on the crabs - one eye only, since the other was put out in a car accident. Undeterred, he grabs a crab that has escaped the basket and bites and shakes it until it stops moving. The men work without speaking much, as loudspeakers blare country or rock music over the din of the engine. By early afternoon, Somers and his crew have fished 700 crab pots, amassing 47 bushels of females and a half-bushel of males. It's well under the 80-bushel daily maximum he could catch, but Somers says it's about what he expects at this time of year.

He heads toward Crisfield to unload his catch and drop off Monzeglio, who's due to start a night shift at his second job, as a guard in the Somerset County detention center. Somers gets back to the dock nearly 11 hours after he set out. He'll keep up the pace, fishing even more crab pots, weather and health permitting, every day but Sunday. After Wednesday, he says, he's not sure what he'll do - at least until Dec. 1, when he can go back out on the water to catch striped bass, or rockfish.

Maryland has set aside $3 million to provide work for watermen who'll lose crabbing income. Congress has approved federal disaster relief for the bay crab industry - perhaps as much as $15 million for each state - though it's not clear how soon it could start flowing. The aid will be available to at least some of the nearly 2,000 Marylanders officials say are permitted to catch female crabs, plus the crab-processing businesses that will lose product to sell.

Asked whether he'll apply for the state work - rebuilding oyster reefs, planting trees and restoring wetlands - or for the federal assistance, Somers frowns and shakes his head. He'd rather have an extra week or two to crab, he says.

"It's a hardship," he says of the rules.

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