Crabbers feel the pinch

The Baltimore Sun

The hair on Jesse Jump's weather-beaten neck bristles when he hears the word "Annapolis."

Mr. Jump and his buddies, sitting on the tailgates of their pickups parked next to their workboats in St. Michaels harbor, are talking about what had been a pretty good crabbing year - that is, until the new cutbacks hit in September.

The smell of their bait is as strong as their comments about the Maryland and Virginia government regulations that have limited this year's catch of female blue crabs on the Chesapeake Bay and have banned winter dredging of crabs, long a staple of the industry in Virginia.

The states made the cuts after surveys showed the possibility of a blue crab population collapse. The numbers looked bleak. The signature crop of the bay's fishery appeared to be at a tipping point with near-record lows reported from last year's harvest and a projected drop in the new crab population. Gov. Martin O'Malley joined hands with Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine to regulate crab harvesting by outlawing the recreational catching of female crabs all year and reducing the commercial harvest of females by about one-third.

"I went from making $300 to $400 a day catching females to less then half of that in one day," Mr. Jump, 56, says through his thick mustache. "If that don't make you mad, I don't know what does."

To help ease the financial pain caused by the restrictions, both states are hiring watermen to plant trees, rebuild oyster beds and work in hatcheries. In September, the U.S. Department of Commerce ruled the soft crab and peeler fisheries failed, a key move needed to make watermen eligible for federal assistance.

"This is not a giveaway," says Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "This is real work. The regulations took away the heart of their year, and the watermen need these jobs to get through the winter."

The jobs will help, but the men who work the water are wondering if science has been outsmarted by reality.

John Graham, who runs a crab processing business on Hampton Creek in Virginia, says the year started slow but built into one of the most productive crabbing seasons in the last three to four years. He says the state-imposed regulations are hurting his business and rippling through the local economy, affecting pickers, bait suppliers, basket makers and truckers as well as the crabbers.

"One thing this shows is that no one knows anything about crabs," he says.

Bob Hambleton, 60, says he has been crabbing the Miles River out of St. Michaels since his teens and 2008 hasn't been as bad a year as predicted. "We've got people who learned everything from a book telling us what is happening on the water."

While this year's harvest is still under way, the watermen are asking if the restrictions were too heavy-handed.

"How can you count what you can't see?" Mr. Jump asks. "We only get a good run of females here every four years, and this was the year. Now they took that away from us.

"I have 950 baits on my line, and I have 700 crabs on almost every pass. Most of them are the little crabs that Annapolis said weren't there. We been pulling more little crabs and sponge crabs than I have seen in years."

The Maryland crabbers say that one promising result of the regulations for them is the ban on dredging fecund female crabs in Virginia. "I think that ban will be the single best thing that will happen to crabs in the bay," Mr. Hambleton says.

But Mr. Graham says that cut will hit hard in his area, pulling Virginia crabbers off the water for five months. He said the average crabber in his area is 62 years old, and if a waterman finds work off the bay, there is a strong chance he won't return.

Atlantic blue crabs, the beautiful swimmers of the Chesapeake Bay, are part of life in the region. They need to be preserved. But so do the lives and livelihoods of the crabbers who bring them to our tables. Mr. Graham says he fears regulations could be the undoing of what is left of the industry, leaving behind part-time watermen selling crabs by the roadside as quaint reminders.

This year will be a good test to see if the restrictions bring a rebound of the crab population. If they do not, it is time to take a hard look at how the crab population of the Chesapeake is determined and regulated.

"We are looking at the loss of the coastal communities' heritage," Mr. Graham says. "We will be heading into history before long."

Dick Cooper spent 36 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, and in 1972 won the Pulitzer Prize for general local reporting. He lives and sails in St. Michaels. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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