Crabbers seek to take charge of their future

The sun is just peeking over the treetops as Billy Rice steers his 24-foot boat, Miss Jill, out into the Potomac River.

Six days a week, in all kinds of weather, except lightning and high winds, the Charles County waterman and his helper and wife, Melinda, spend their mornings pulling crab pots from the water. Crabbing has been that way for decades.

But watermen across the bay are starting to acknowledge things need to change if their traditional livelihood is to survive. And this fiercely independent bunch — full of distrust of officials, and even at times of each other — is trying to band together to control their destiny.

They've been meeting in recent months to develop proposals for improving their future, taking aim at some state regulations and policies. But the gatherings have been punctuated at times by testy exchanges among the watermen themselves, and some are boycotting the talks.

The catch this summer has been good, but long-term prospects remain uncertain for the men (and a few women) who make a living from the bay. Oysters, once the most bountiful product of the Chesapeake Bay, are a sliver of their former abundance, forcing watermen to rely more on crabbing to carry them through the year. But they're squeezed by rising costs and a market flooded with cheap, imported crabmeat.

"If something happens to crabbing in the Chesapeake Bay, our seafood industry is gone, because that's keeping us going right now," said Rice, 55, who's been working on the water since he was 10.

So for the past six months, he and more than two dozen other watermen from Havre de Grace to Smith Island have been meeting after work one evening a month in Grasonville on the Eastern Shore. Over pizza, salad and soda, the "Blue Crab Design Team," as they're called, talk and argue into the night about how to craft a brighter, more secure future.

"We're trying to make it so we have a fishery in 10 years," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

One aim, he said, is to "get rid of a bunch of little nitpicky laws" that cramp crabbers' ability to earn a living, without allowing overfishing of the bay's iconic crustacean.

Among the rules that irk Dundalk crabber Richard Young is the one forcing him to stop crabbing 71/2 hours after sunrise — around 1:30 p.m. this time of year — even if engine trouble or bad weather delays his starting time. Or the rule that doesn't allow him to change his day off for the entire year.

"Things could be changed for the better for everybody — for the crabs and for the crabbers," Young said.

Relations between watermen and fisheries regulators have been tense, even acrimonious, for years. But state officials sitting in on the talks say they'll consider the watermen's proposals, as long as they don't jeopardize the crab population or other things in the bay — and are agreed on by all the watermen.

Steve Early, assistant fisheries director with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said regulators hope the talks lead to some form of "co-management." But for watermen to be trusted with managing themselves, he said, they must show some responsibility.

Though crabbing has not been tarred with the poaching scandals that have afflicted oystering and rockfishing recently, watermen acknowledge they have been exaggerating their crab catch reports for years. They say they feared the state would limit or even cut them off based on the reports. But as a result, regulators have been unsure exactly how many crabs are being caught, so they limit the overall catch more than necessary to maintain an adequate crab population.

That means there are potentially millions of dollars' worth of crabs left in the water that could have been sustainably harvested, on top of the 53 million pounds officials estimate were caught last year.

Regulators also worry that there are too many people permitted to catch and sell crabs, posing a threat to the sustainability of the crab stock. The state has bought and retired more than 760 commercial licenses in the past couple years, but more than 5,000 remain. Nearly a quarter of those are inactive, and officials fear the license-holders could deplete the fishery if they suddenly resumed crabbing.

And, finally, there is the graying of the industry. A survey of 2,000 commercial watermen found that 60 percent were at least 50 years old, and a third were 60 or older. Only 14 percent were under 40.

Rock Hall waterman David Kirwan said his two sons used to work with him, but left the water four years ago to go into professional mixed martial-arts cage fighting. Kirwan, who's 54, thinks they'll come back once their fight careers wane because "it's in their blood."

"I'd like to be able to pass my business on to my children, you know?" he says. "I told them it ain't the best business in the world, but I can make a decent living if I work at it."

The problem with catch reports is just one of the lingering tensions between state officials and watermen, who three years ago bitterly complained about an early season closure and other catch limits meant to preserve more female crabs. The population rebounded substantially within two years, as did the catch, and many watermen now acknowledge the cutbacks helped, though some still resent how they were applied.

"We've got to put the past behind us," Simns, the watermen's association president, said at one meeting.

Still, the discussions have been heated at times, particularly between watermen from different parts of the bay. Tempers flared last month when members of one of the state's two rival watermen's groups walked out.

Gibby Dean, president of the Chesapeake Bay Commercial Fishermen's Association, said the meetings are part of an effort by the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund to impose a controversial "catch share" plan on crabbing in the bay. He fears that would squeeze many watermen out of the fishery.

With catch shares, each fisher is given an individualized portion or quota of the overall allowable catch, often based on prior harvests. Some fishing groups say the system frees them from traditional catch restrictions so they can time their fishing activity to times when the market is paying the highest price.

But others, including some environmentalists, have criticized the system, arguing that it has squeezed out small fishers in favor of big corporate fleets. Dean, for example, said he was forced to quit scallop fishing along the Atlantic coast several years ago after federal regulators set up a catch-share plan there.

EDF has been staffing the crab design team under a two-year, $500,000 contract with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources that expired at the end of July. It's continuing to work with the talks at its own expense. The group has been a vocal proponent of catch shares, and even organized field trips for watermen to the Gulf of Mexico and the Northwest to learn about other fisheries operating under catch shares.

But Matthew P. Mullin, EDF's Chesapeake Bay director, said his group is there to help Maryland crabbers flesh out their own vision for their industry, not push catch shares or any other particular regulatory effort.

"We have no mandate from our central office to shove catch shares down your throats," Mullin told the group at the fractious July meeting.

Dean, whose group has nearly 200 members, mainly from Dorchester and Somerset counties, said he agrees on the need to improve how crabbing is managed, but won't rejoin the talks as long as EDF is involved. "We just don't feel we need any outside people there that are, in our opinion, there to impose their own political agendas on us."

Simns has refused to drop EDF from the talks, saying the environmental group can help sell Maryland lawmakers on any changes in crabbing rules for watermen.

But the split has left the group shy of lower bay representatives, and prompted state officials to warn that they're less likely to heed the team's recommendations if the group doesn't represent the entire industry. The team's members were mostly chosen by county watermen's associations, all branches of Simns' group. And Young, the Dundalk crabber, pointed out that unaffiliated watermen like him are relegated to observer status at the talks, even though most of the state's crabbers belong to no organization.

"Our biggest obstacle to reaching our goals has been a lack of working together," Bunky Chance, a Talbot County waterman, observed at a recent meeting. "The independence that has been our strength is our weakness."

At its most recent meeting Wednesday night, the group took a step to open up its membership. It decided to hold mail-in elections for five spots on the team that were vacated by lower bay watermen, and to invite all the state's crabbers to elect two at-large representatives. The seat held by the head of the boycotting group was left vacant.

Besides nettlesome rules, watermen also are frustrated because the price they receive for their catch drops every summer just as crabs become plentiful — while the price paid by consumers stays high. As dockside prices drop, watermen say they're driven to catch more and smaller crabs just to maintain their income.

Rice, the Charles County waterman, said Potomac River crabbers broke the downward spiral by agreeing a few years ago to catch only bigger crabs. They petitioned the bi-state commission that regulates fishing in the Potomac to set the minimum catchable size at 51/2 inches, a quarter-inch larger than what's allowed in Maryland and a half-inch larger than in Virginia. Catches declined at first, Rice said, which hurt, but the bigger crabs they catch now earn higher prices, making up for the sacrifice.

In a similar vein, Rice and his wife tossed back half or more of the catch one day last week, even though the crabs were plenty big. The rejects' shells buckled under Melinda Rice's thumb — a sign they had recently molted and hadn't grown to fill out their shells yet. While others might be tempted to slip such "light" crabs into a bushel basket, she said the feedback from wholesalers when consumers complain isn't worth it. In a couple of more weeks, she noted, they'll be meaty again and a quality catch.

Billy Rice and others see such actions as examples of how watermen might find ways to improve their income over time without hurting the resource.

"It's not how many crabs you catch," Rice said. "It's how much you make. Watermen … are people, and people don't like change. But change is inevitable."