Push to ease regulation of crabbing hits snag

Hoping to win support of legislators worried about the health of the Chesapeake Bay, the Ehrlich administration is revising crabbing regulations released last month that allow the capture of smaller blue crabs for part of the season.

At issue is whether Maryland will meet a goal of reducing its crab harvest by 15 percent to allow replenishment of the valued but threatened crustacean that is synonymous with life along the Chesapeake.

This month, the Department of Natural Resources announced new crab size limits and capture dates that would reduce the take by an estimated 14.6 percent.

But as a Monday vote on those new limits approaches, state officials are revising the plan after learning that key lawmakers might reject them.

"I've asked them to go back and look at it and see if they can come up with some changes that will take it to the 15 [percent] or more," said Del. John F. Wood Jr., a St. Mary's County Democrat who is co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review. "We'll see whether they can come up with some changes."

Wood's committee has a hearing scheduled on the new regulations at which opposition to the administration's proposals are expected to surface.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is hoping to ease tougher restrictions on crabbing imposed by his predecessor, Parris N. Glendening. During Ehrlich's campaign, he won the support of watermen by promising to respond to concerns that their livelihood was being threatened.

The department has proposed allowing hard crabs as small as 5 inches to be caught until Aug. 1, when the minimum size would return to 5 1/4 inches.

John Surrick, a DNR spokesman, said discussions about regulations are being held, but he would not disclose how the regulations might be changed.

Larry Simns, head of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said yesterday that the alterations "won't be anything drastic, just enough to get those points." They could include changing the date when the size limit changes, he said.

"The main thing is, they are going to have a guaranteed 15 percent, and nobody will be able to vote against it," Simns said.

Some lawmakers said they still might reject the new rules.

"To look short term just to relieve a little pressure, and not think two years out or four years out about having no crab harvest, I think is irresponsible," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat and co-chairman of the administrative committee. "I believe there are enough votes to kill this. I believe people do not believe this is moving the bay and its resources in the right directions."

Sen. James Brochin of Baltimore County, another committee member, said he thinks the size limit for blue crabs should be raised, not lowered.

"We need to give crabs time to breed," said Brochin, a Democrat.

Sen. Richard F. Colburn, an Eastern Shore Republican, said the harvest reduction could be achieved without altering Ehrlich's proposed size limits because fewer commercial crabbers will be operating this year.

The drought killed oysters and forced out of business some fisherman who otherwise would be harvesting crabs in the summer, he said.

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