- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 16, 2002

ANNAPOLIS The state's Chesapeake Bay crab harvest in May was about average for the past eight years, but, coupled with a sky-high catch in April, the overall figures are still strong.

According to preliminary reports from the Department of Natural Resources obtained yesterday by the Associated Press, Maryland watermen caught 1.64 million tons of blue crabs in May, just under the 1.67 million average for the past eight seasons.

That followed April, when 899,408 pounds of crabs were hauled in more than twice the eight-year average for that time of year and almost five times the tally last year for that month.

By the end of the season, however, biologists expect the total harvest to end up where it was the last two years, which is fairly low.

Phil Jones, director of the DNR's resource management division, attributed the April boom to a mild winter and regulations put in place to boost declining populations. In particular, Mr. Jones pointed to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's order last year to cut the season short by a month.

The two events together allowed more crabs to survive into this season and grow a little more.

"The quality of Chesapeake Bay crabs is always good, but it appears to be a little better this year as far as size," Mr. Jones said. "I've heard many reports of many large male hard-shells this year. So they're bigger and better."

Mr. Jones said he does not expect the harvest to keep up that pace. Last season, watermen took in about 22.7 million pounds of hard, soft and peeler crabs, up from 20.2 million in 2000 the lowest in modern times.

"We're talking about an annual harvest between 20 [million] and 25 million pounds [this year]," he said.

In a typical year, the catch in April and May accounts for about 6 percent of the total, with the more significant intake beginning in June.

Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said watermen also are noticing unusually high numbers of smaller crabs too small to keep that he attributes to natural reproduction cycles.

That could mean a bigger harvest in coming months, if the undersized crustaceans don't all fall prey to the fish that eat them, which also are plentiful, he said.

"We'll see the results a little bit this fall, if they survive," Mr. Simns said.

Mr. Jones said he expects the numbers to improve next year as a result of the regulations. Maryland and Virginia imposed restrictions, such as limiting watermen to an eight-hour workday, because of what scientists say is a serious decline in the number of crabs in the Bay.

The restrictions imposed last year by the two states were the first of three annual installments intended to reduce the catch by 15 percent.

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