Season of hope

The Baltimore Sun

ROCK HALL -After sitting idle since fall, the crab pots need a tuneup - a little tightening and some cleaning. Brian Pierce is eager to get ready, even though he's not sure what kind of living he'll be able to make on the Chesapeake Bay this season.

"Hopefully, this year's going to be better," the 32-year-old waterman says as he and his helper, Michael Orr, work their way through towering stacks of the wire-mesh crab traps.

The crab season's traditional April 1 start couldn't come soon enough for watermen like Pierce and Orr, who've endured a long, lean winter. But the season begins on a note of uncertainty, as fishers and biologists await news from a winterlong dredge survey of the bay's crab population to see whether it has rebounded from a perilously low level last year.

In October, state officials moved up the ban on catching female crabs by seven weeks in an effort to protect the stock. But the early cutoff cost full-time crabbers like Pierce dearly - thousands of dollars they usually make by harvesting female crabs as they migrate down the bay in the fall.

The results of the survey won't be known for another couple of weeks, but state officials already have set harvest regulations for this year. They say they will tweak the rules according to what the survey shows - clamping down still more if the crab population remains in dire trouble.

Some scientists, however, worry that the state has not restricted the harvest enough or in the right ways - and that it might be risking the crabs' recovery by adjusting the catch limits this year to spread the impact more evenly across all of the bay's watermen.

"We don't know if it was enough of a conservation move, and if it will be sustained," said Thomas Miller, a fisheries ecologist with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Even if the survey finds more crabs in the bay, Miller said, he's concerned that the growth could be undercut by changes the Department of Natural Resources has made this year to let watermen catch females later in the fall.

Maryland and Virginia agreed last year to take steps to reduce the harvest of female crabs by 34 percent, so that more of them could survive long enough to spawn in the spring. Each state adopted its own harvest restrictions, including late-October cutoffs for catching females.

Officials in both states say they believe last year's restrictions worked - though Maryland's results are clouded by doubts over watermen's catch reports. They reported catching more crabs than the year before, despite the restrictions.

State officials say watermen exaggerated their catch, but as of now they have no firm estimate for how many crabs were harvested last year. They say the figure likely ranged from 24 million to 33 million pounds overall - as high or higher than in 2007. But state biologists also say that they're confident, based on other indicators, that the female catch was reduced by close to the goal of 34 percent.

Not everyone is convinced. Anson "Tuck" Hines, a crab biologist who directs the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, said he believes that Maryland barred catching females too late in the season to protect enough of them.

Maryland has adjusted its restrictions to allow watermen to catch female crabs even longer - an extra 2 1/2 weeks. But they'll have to throw back any females they catch for about three weeks in June and late September. The change is designed to help watermen along the lower bay, who make much of their income in October and November as females migrate past on their way to Virginia.

"It's better on the watermen because everybody's paying," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. The ban on keeping females in June and late September will cut into the catch of upper and mid-bay crabbers, he said.

Miller says he understands the desire to make the restrictions more equitable. But he questions whether short-term bans earlier in the year will do as much to protect females; crabbers might just wind up catching more in midsummer.

"Just because you forgo catching one [in spring] doesn't mean it'll be around to make that migration in September," Miller said.

Maryland officials say they believe this year's regulations are as protective as last year's. The two-week ban in June should shield an early wave of females that swims south to Virginia about that time to release their young, state biologist Lynn Fegley says.

In addition to the closures, the state has set daily limits on how many females crabbers can keep during the rest of the season. Those maximums can be decreased if need be, officials say.

Hines says he doubts whether fisheries regulators can control the catch well enough with such measures. He believes crabs would be better protected by putting major sections of the bay off-limits to crabbing, and by reducing the number of crabbers and the amount of gear they can use.

For its part, Virginia has established a crab sanctuary, closing a vast expanse of water to harvest in the spring when crabs begin spawning in earnest. The state also reduced the number of crab pots its watermen could use, and it might order a further reduction this year if the crabs are not recovering adequately, said Jack Travelstead, Virginia's fisheries director.

Scientists do not agree on the best way to proceed. Miller says a sanctuary makes sense in Virginia, where research has identified crabs' spawning area. Similar closures here would be less effective, he said, because less is known about migration routes.

As he readies his crab pots, Brian Pierce says he can't help but believe this season will be an improvement over last year's. He's been crabbing on his own since 1997, and usually follows the "beautiful swimmers" from the Virginia line to the upper bay and back.

"It's pretty neat, but it's a hard living," he said.

Last fall's early close to the female season "really hurt me bad financially," Pierce said, and he didn't fare much better when he tried fishing for perch instead.

He did recoup a little of his lost crabbing earnings by cleaning old oyster bars, part of the state's work program to help watermen hurt by the crab restrictions.

Even so, he hopes the sacrifices he and other watermen made last year were not in vain.

"I'm hoping it's all right," he said, "for all our sakes."

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