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More than 530 Maryland commercial crabbers have sold their licenses back to the state, the Department of Natural Resources announced Monday, easing fishing pressure on the Chesapeake Bay's signature crustacean. Now, the state plans to freeze or restrict the permits of nearly 2,000 other "inactive" crabbers who didn't report catching anything last year.

State officials say they're heartened by the response to their latest buyback effort, in which the state offered some of its commercial crabbers $2,260 each to permanently retire their permits to catch crabs for sale. And they say the offer stands until $3 million in federal funds earmarked for the buyback run out.

The offers were made to holders of the "limited crab catcher" license, which allows fishing for crabs with a baited line or with up to 50 wire-mesh crab "pots" or traps. State officials had said they hoped to buy 1,327 licenses, or more than one-third of the 3,676 existing permits of that type. Maryland is using federal funds awarded to help ease the economic disaster that hit the crabbing industry last year, as incomes plummeted amid emergency catch restrictions meant to rebuild the bay's crab population.

This is DNR's second attempt to buy inactive licenses back, and its third swing at keeping the bay's rebuilding crab population from being hurt if many crabbers who've been sitting on the shore for the past few years suddenly decided to head back out on the water.

Last winter, fisheries regulators announced they intended to freeze all inactive crabbers' licenses until the bay's crab stock had recovered enough, but they withdrew that plan after crabbers protested. Then DNR invited crabbers to name their own prices at which they'd be willing to sell their licenses. The state got nearly 500 responses, but the prices crabbers quoted varied wildly. All the bids were rejected, and the state countered with its own fixed-price offer.

Lynn Fegley, assistant fisheries director, said about half the crabbers who finally sold their licenses had sat out the reverse auction, which had never before been tried in the bay region. "There was a lot to be said for simplicity," Fegley said.

DNR is proposing new regulations that will require inactive commercial crabbers to choose between one of two options if they don't sell their licenses back. They can "freeze" their licenses, meaning they can't return to crabbing until the population regains abundance. License holders won't have to pay the $50 annual fee while their license is frozen, and they're free to transfer or sell it. Alternatively, crabbers can keep the license active by agreeing to catch only male crabs. The license is permanently barred from catching female crabs, and it can only be transferred to a family member or bequeathed in death.

Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, called the proposed limits "a reasonable compromise." Some of those not using their licenses wanted to be able to give or sell them to family members, he said, while others wanted to reserve the option of getting back on the water when they felt the urge.

The rules come as crabbers face an early cutoff again this year on catching female crabs, with the final day Nov. 10.

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