- The Washington Times - Monday, December 2, 2002

ANNAPOLIS The Chesapeake Bay's blue-crab harvest is running below last season's levels, but above the record lows of two years ago, state figures show.
Harvest figures through September, which represent on average about three-quarters of the season total, show Maryland watermen landed 16.4 million pounds of crabs.
Last year, watermen pulled in 17.2 million pounds by the end of September, and in 2000 they harvested 15.3 million pounds, the lowest catch in modern times.
The eight-year average harvest through September is 22.6 million pounds.
Phil Jones, director of the Department of Natural Resources' resource-management division, said the harvest this year is consistent with predictions made from a survey conducted last winter. The harvest also is beginning to reflect regulations that went into effect this year.
As of August, the minimum size for male hard-shell crabs was increased to 5 inches, up from 5 inches.
The minimum size for peeler crabs was increased before the season from 3 inches to 3 inches, and soft-shell crabs from 3 inches to 4 inches.
The size limits mean the crabs that watermen are keeping are larger, sell for more and have had more opportunities to breed, Mr. Jones said.
"They're worth more, their reproductive potential is larger, so there are benefits to the population and to the harvest," he said.
However, watermen have complained that the regulations have forced them to throw back large portions of their catch.
The size restrictions were part of a three-year effort that began last year to reduce crab harvests by 15 percent because of what scientists described as a serious decline in crab populations. Mr. Jones said no additional regulations are planned for next season.
Bill Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, said cooler weather this year has played a part in totals that have dipped since a strong start last spring.
In September, watermen pulled in less than the 3 million pounds of crabs caught that same month during the weak harvest of 2000.
When the temperatures chill, many crabs migrate south to the mouth of the Chesapeake to spend the winter in Virginia's water, he said, so totals are likely to stay low.
"I think people would've liked to have had more, but it got cold fast, and that cut short the fall harvest," Mr. Sieling said. "I talked to guys this week and they said normally they would have had more crabs longer."
By the end of this week, most crab processors will have shut down business for the year, though the official season will last until Dec. 15, he said.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening last year ordered the season to close Nov. 1 a month earlier than expected as part of the effort to curtail the overall catch.
That was unfortunate, Mr. Sieling said, because last year the weather was good and watermen were still bringing in a steady harvest.
Mr. Jones said it is too early to make predictions for next year, but Mr. Sieling says watermen are due for a breakout season.
"Watermen and farmers are always eternal optimists," Mr. Sieling said.
"Watermen said they saw an incredible number of small crabs in the water that hopefully will become big crabs next year, but lots of things can happen to juvenile crabs before they make market size."


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