Restrictions reduce catch of female crabs, state says

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland's new crabbing restrictions succeeded in reducing the catch of female crabs significantly last year, state officials said yesterday, despite reports from watermen that their harvest increased by 50 percent.

State fisheries officials said that based on independent surveys, they estimate the female crab harvest in Maryland declined by 28 percent to 36 percent.

Prompted by surveys indicating that the Chesapeake Bay's crab population was dangerously low, Maryland and Virginia both pledged last year to reduce the female crab catch by 34 percent. Maryland halted the female harvest about seven weeks early and imposed daily limits on how many females watermen could catch in the two months before that.

Virginia imposed restrictions as well, and reported last month that its watermen caught 37 percent fewer crabs as a result.

Maryland's watermen, by contrast, reported catching 36.1 million pounds of crabs last year, up from 23.7 million pounds the year before and well above the long-term average.

But Lynn Fegley of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said there were sizable discrepancies between those catch reports and harvest indicators gleaned from other sources. She said state scientists checked observations the agency makes of 40 crabbers' effort through the year, as well as a census it commissions of crab pots deployed by watermen throughout the bay.

The state also consulted reports from seafood dealers of how many crabs they bought from watermen. Those sources did not show a major increase in catch, Fegley said. Officials are trying to get an estimate on the overall catch. Fegley said watermen may have been induced to inflate catch reports because the state for the first time last year set daily female crab quotas for individuals based on the catch they had reported in prior years. The state has eliminated that provision in crabbing regulations for this year.

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