Crabbers go digital to report their catch

When Richard Young gets done with a day of crabbing, he often calls the co-owner of his seafood business on his cellphone to let her know he's headed back in.

Starting next week, though, the 56-year-old waterman from Dundalk is going to be checking in by phone with the Department of Natural Resources every morning as he leaves the dock in the wee hours and then again when he's caught his last crab. And by the time he gets back to land, he'll have texted in the details of his catch — while still keeping one eye on the water, of course, as he steers his workboat, the Island Girl.

Crabbing, that most traditional of livelihoods, is taking a tentative step into the digital age. A pioneering group of about 75 Maryland watermen, ranging in age from 24 to 88, has volunteered to check in daily with the state by cellphone, smartphone and mobile tablet, and to report their catch promptly, even though under the regulations they just have to file paper reports monthly.

They are participants in a $600,000, state-funded pilot program, proposed by the crabbers, that will run through November.

It's a big step for many watermen, generally fiercely independent by nature, who would just as soon not see, much less speak to, the state fisheries regulators who over the years have limited their catch and spun a web of rules and red tape around their occupation. But Young and the other volunteers hope that, by giving their government overseers more timely and accurate information about their catch, they can regain a measure of flexibility — freedom, even — in pursuing the Chesapeake Bay's iconic crustacean.

"This is an opportunity for us, the watermen, to be proactive in management [of our industry] rather than reactive," said Young, co-owner of Coveside Crabs. "The way it is now, the department tells us what we can do and that's the way it is."

The project is the outgrowth of a yearlong effort by Maryland watermen to have a greater say in the future of their livelihood. Crabbers, crabmeat processors and restaurateurs from Havre de Grace to Smith Island have gathered monthly on the Eastern Shore to hash out their issues with regulations, and with each other, and to try to find solutions.

The talks have been testy at times. But the leaders of the Blue Crab Design Team, as it's known, say they see this as a first step toward a better way of earning a living while maintaining a sustainable crab population in the bay.

"I think it's going to prove out to be worthwhile," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. Though they had hoped to attract 100 volunteers, leaders said, they were pleased with the number who did step forward, given the spotty catch so far and the lingering doubts of many that anything good can come of working with the state.

"Fishermen naturally are skeptical of change," said Matthew Mullin of the Environmental Defense Fund, who has been working with the group. "This is a new way of doing business; it's going to take time." But he said many oceangoing fishing trawlers now work under even closer supervision by federal regulators, including carrying observers on board.

State officials say they are eager to see whether the experiment yields a more up-to-date and accurate picture of how the crabbing season is going. Now, it can take months to compile catch information, and for at least the past few years, the reported harvest has been wildly unreliable.

Watermen acknowledge that they have filed inflated or false reports at times, fearful that their future catch would be curbed based on their harvest history. Fisheries regulators have responded by setting stricter limits to maintain a sustainable population of crabs because they are uncertain how many are being caught.

"If we really knew what was getting harvested, we would be much more comfortable allowing harvest to the maximum level," said Brenda Davis, chief of the blue crab program at the Department of Natural Resources.

"We want to be sure we're able to catch what we're allowed and don't leave anything on the table," said Gibby Dean, president of the Chesapeake Bay Commercial Fishermen's Association. "There's been times we've asked for a little flexibility and [state officials] weren't able to do it."

For the pilot program, watermen are being issued cellphones or specially programmed smartphones and tablets with which to file their reports. Some are required to call in when they leave the dock and return; some must text or transmit catch figures before they dock, while others allowed to do so when they land. Some will be asked to telephone a call-in center.

The point of the program, said Kate Culzoni, a staff consultant to the crab industry team, is to test which technologies work best on the bay and which reporting methods work best with the watermen, whose technical sophistication varies.

"For some of those guys, a cellphone might be a technical challenge," said Mark Kitching, 51, of Smith Island, who notes that he often cannot get a signal while out on the water.

And there will be a team of monitors who will randomly meet boats at the dock to verify the catch.

"It'll keep people on the up and up," said Marcus Blake, 42, who was issued a pre-programmed LG smartphone to report his catch. But Blake, who crabs out of Hogpen Creek in Essex, said he hopes that if watermen show greater accountability, they will ultimately earn freedom from regulations that limit the hours and days when they can work, even if bad weather, gear breakdowns and other problems keep them from getting out on the water during their allotted time.

Young, who was issued an LG cellphone with a slide-out keyboard to text in his catch, said he was among the doubters but decided it wasn't fair to bash something he hadn't tried.

"I'm going to keep an open mind. Maybe I'll like it," he said. "I think it's a win-win situation if we can develop something that works for everybody."

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