- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2001

ANNAPOLIS — Mike Spiegel and Brian Gross powered their way back to shore in their 28-foot deadrise boat on a recent Friday afternoon, pitching hard in 2-foot waves and winds up to 20 knots. For their eight hours out on the Chesapeake Bay, they claimed 11 bushels of hard-shell blue crabs.
"It was a good day," Mr. Spiegel said, tying up at Cantler's restaurant near Annapolis.
Their crabs could sell for $60 to $120 per basket, depending on the day's market price and what they negotiate with buyers, Mr. Spiegel said.
They had been out on the Chesapeake Bay since 5:30 a.m. — Mr. Gross pulling, emptying, rebaiting and resetting pots, and Mr. Spiegel piloting the craft and sorting crabs into bushels. There was yet more work to do at the dock. But 11 bushels is a decent catch for two crabbers, they said, and at least they had gotten to work — an issue that has recently become a major concern.
A regulation limiting watermen to an eight-hour day went into effect nearly three weeks ago, one of a raft of new strictures designed to reduce harvests and protect the region's seafood resources.
But many watermen are angry about these tough-love measures, saying they're bearing the burden because it's easier and politically expedient for state officials to target them rather than the large pool of constituents who crab or fish for fun. They don't have the kinds of numbers that translate into political capital: There are fewer than 10,000 watermen in Maryland and Virginia.
Maryland officials have conceded the restrictions would cause short-term hardship for watermen and seafood processors, but say the consequences would be far worse if the crab population were allowed to collapse. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials say that the blue-crab population has reached a 30-year low, and that serious remedies are needed to avoid potential disaster.
Four NOAA surveys last year indicated there are fewer mature female blue crabs in the region's waters than the record low measured in 1968. The number of 1-year-old male crabs also is approaching a record low, and the number of juvenile crabs is declining.
An article in the latest issue of the journal Science reports that the numbers of mature fish and shellfish have decreased and concludes that sea life is hard-pressed to grow and reproduce as fast as humans' demand for them.
"We have to take steps now so that people can continue to make a living," said Michelle Byrnie, a spokeswoman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
Those efforts to conserve the blue crabs and the oysters and the clams in the Bay, watermen say, threaten to make them an endangered species.
"Watermen have no say-so," said Gordon "Bunky" Ford, whose family has worked Maryland and Virginia waters for generations.
Pushing for a greater say-so, a coalition of watermen and seafood processors — including the Chesapeake, Atlantic and Coastal Bays Waterman's Coalition and the Blue Crab Conservation Coalition — immediately went to court when Maryland's new regulations went into effect July 23.
A Worcester County Circuit judge denied the request for a restraining order to prevent the Department of Natural Resources from enforcing the regulations. On Friday a judge refused the coalition's request for a preliminary injunction against the eight-hour workday, dealing a serious blow to the group's chances of overturning the regulations.
The group argues that the new rules are unreasonable, will ruin watermen financially and endanger their lives by forcing them to work when they can rather than when conditions are safe and more productive.

In their best interest

The morning Mr. Gross and Mr. Spiegel hauled in 11 bushels is a prime example, watermen say.
Low tide cost some on the waters around the Annapolis area precious time. They weren't able to get under way in time to use the eight hours the state allows them to work their pots or trotlines, beginning 30 minutes to an hour before sunrise.
Increasingly, watermen leave for their morning commute when the moon is still up. Like Mr. Gross of Preston, Md., many now live an hour or more away from their boats because homes in the area have become so expensive.
Also too costly or too tough to find is deep-water dock space, which is in high demand in Anne Arundel County.
Though they can commiserate about early mornings and the precarious economics that mark their business, watermen grumble about competing concerns within their own divided community. Too accepting of the new regulations, they say, are colleagues who work the water but also have retail businesses to fall back on when it's easier to sell seafood than catch it. The watermen who run charter boats in the summer don't join the push to lift limits, they say.
"Every section of the Bay has a different situation to deal with," said longtime Maryland Watermen's Association president Larry Simns of Rock Hall, which is above the Bay Bridge in Kent County.
Mr. Simns — who also offers fishing, cruises and sea-duck hunting aboard his vessel, the Dawn II — has been criticized by lower Bay watermen for not fighting harder against the eight-hour workday.
He says it's plain that watermen were going to have to accept some new regulations, and that the shortened workday is in the best interests of the full-time watermen, who have a more vested interest in preserving the resource that they depend on for a living.
Lots of complaints have come from part-timers whose shifts at other jobs keep them from working on the water during the new, shorter hours, he said.

A long list
Maryland and Virginia both agreed in December to reduce crab harvests by 15 percent over three years to protect the crabs' future, and the changes have added to the dizzying list of prohibitions and stipulations. Crabbers need a reliable calendar and a talent for numbers to keep the schedule straight.
Virginia crabbers can no longer work Wednesdays in June, July and August; that's in addition to the ban on working hard-crab traps on Sundays. Unlike Maryland crabbers, they're still allowed to dredge in winter, but their catch limits were reduced by 15 percent.
Maryland's far-reaching approach has made its watermen, particularly crabbers, especially aggrieved.
Crabbers now must take off one day — either Sunday or Monday — and the season now ends a month early, at the end of October. Crabbers may not crab in November, traditionally the end of both states' regular seasons.
But the regulation that has really upset Maryland watermen is the eight-hour day, eight hours in which to fish trotlines or pull the catch from their pots.
Few limits were placed on Maryland crabbers' hours before 1995. That fall, the state temporarily restricted them to an eight-hour day. In 1996, the state changed the restriction for crabbers to a 14-hour day, which stood until July 23.
Since the shorter day went into effect, Maryland crabbers say it has been hard to find time to clean their pots — a process most efficiently done on the spot as they pull, empty and reset them.

Short days, short tempers
"I don't get paid for an eight-hour day, I get paid for [the results of] how hard I work," Mr. Gross said as he continually spotted buoys, snagged lines, lifted, unloaded, baited and reset crab pots aboard the boat Sunset. At 26, Mr. Gross is young for a waterman — Mr. Spiegel said most full-time watermen he knows are 40 or older — but he's a veteran of the Bay, having worked alongside his waterman uncle as a boy of 9.
Mr. Spiegel, 35, said the restrictions leave little margin for error.
"I can't count how many times the boat has broken down at 9 a.m. and I've had to get a tow in to get it fixed and come back," said Mr. Spiegel, who decided to become a full-time waterman about 17 years ago.
When a crab boat breaks down now under the new eight-hour-day rule, he said, a crabber could lose the rest of the workday, and other crabbers would probably be reluctant to help out lest they lose work, too.
Some Maryland crabbers, particularly those in the lower Chesapeake and on the Eastern Shore, said they would have preferred a limit on the number of bushels they could catch.
Many, including Mr. Speigel and Mr. Gross, complain that the regulations don't consider the realities of their work, weather and tides.
Eric Schwaab, fisheries director for the Department of Natural Resources, said his agency did its best to consider watermen's needs. But the aim, he said, always was to reduce fishing.
Maryland has capped commercial fishing licenses, allowing families to transfer them and issuing new licenses to the next candidate on a waiting list only when one is relinquished or revoked.
Virginia's Marine Resources Commission decided in May to continue a freeze on issuing new commercial crabbing licenses. Begun in 1999, the freeze was extended through May 2004.

Changing fortunes
Crabbers in Maryland and Virginia were feeling flush in the early 1990s, when harvests were at peak levels. But last year's levels were about half that in 1993, and watermen admit they felt that pinch.
New regulations have exacerbated the problem. What's more, many watermen say restrictions aimed at reversing dwindling harvest levels ignore basic truth.
It's natural, they say, for fish and shellfish populations to run in cycles, and decades of harvest statistics from both states support that argument.
Like others who work the waters, Mr. Ford says regulatory agencies and their biologists have little regard for the firsthand knowledge of fish, rivers, bays and the ocean that watermen bring to the table.
An official with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) counters that watermen place too much emphasis on cyclical harvest figures.
"There are cycles in every species, but that doesn't override the effect man can have," said Jack Travelstead, fisheries chief at the VMRC.
Pollution and predation. Those are two problems watermen say aren't being looked at closely enough.

Fishing for answers
For those who look to the Bay for their livelihood, blue crabs are a major concern — not just because of their low numbers, but because they are one of the most lucrative catches. Blue crabs account for about 60 percent of the average working waterman's income in Maryland, Mr. Schwaab said.
Maryland watermen say the real threat is increased numbers of recreational crabbers.
"The biggest challenge is the fishing effort — not just commercial, but recreational. It never goes down," Mr. Travelstead said. "Even though populations may be responding to management efforts, fishing is increasing."
The number of recreational crabbers has remained relatively constant, officials said, but the state doesn't really have an accurate count, particularly of those whose crabbing activity doesn't require a license.
This spring Maryland's General Assembly approved a two-year tightening of regulations on recreational crabbers, capping their daily catch at about a bushel per person. Virginia similarly reined in recreational crabbers, limiting those with three to five pots to a daily catch of one bushel of hard crabs and 24 soft crabs.
But Virginia officials said they doubt the change will affect many hobbyists because most probably aren't catching close to the limit.
Mr. Schwaab said Maryland has begun efforts to gauge the effect of recreational crabbers by requiring dealers to report crab sales and trying to design a statistically valid survey to estimate casual crabbers' catches.
For other types of catches, it's not all gloom and doom. Mr. Schwaab said rebounds in finfish stocks — including striped bass, croaker, sea trout and even shad — show these are "pretty good times" for Maryland's fisheries.

All that's left to catch
Mr. Ford, however, says these aren't good times for watermen.
He lives in Maryland but docks his 48-foot deadrise boat in Chincoteague so he can fish Virginia's seaside waters.
There he can use the cheaper and, he contends, superior single-filament net that Maryland forbids in favor of a more expensive multifilament net that he says entangles and wounds fish.
Mr. Ford said watermen like himself have been particularly hurt by federal regulators' decision to ban catching spiny dogfish — a species most often served as fish and chips. The National Marine Fisheries Service — which regulates fishing in U.S. waters between three and 200 miles offshore — declared the spiny dogfish off limits in January until further notice because agency officials believe their stocks of large, mature specimens are running short.
Nonetheless, Mr. Ford said he has to work hard to avoid spiny dogfish.
"We were croaker fishing [around Nov. 12], and I saw two dogfish. Pulled the net up and there were 25 to 30," Mr. Ford said. "By the third day we got 2,000 pounds of dogfish, and there were no croaker left" because the dogfish had eaten or run them off.
Mr. Ford said that in the winter along his part of the mid-Atlantic coast, spiny dogfish — until a decade ago considered a "nuisance" — are about all that's left to catch. Without them to catch in January and February, he works inside the packing house where he usually sells his catch, helping ship out the catch of large offshore trawlers.

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