- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2003

Brian O'Hare, the man in charge of the Coastal Conservation Association/Maryland Government Affairs Committee, isn't happy with the way some Maryland legislators are handling the Chesapeake Bay's crab population.
"Last year the Department of Natural Resources implemented a series of crab regulations designed to fulfill Maryland's commitment to reduce the catch of blue crabs by 15 percent," he said. "The 15 percent figure was recommended by 25 top scientists, who established the [percentage] target as a way of getting to a sustainable fishery for blue crabs [because it would] preserve 20 percent of the crabs' spawning potential. The blue crab is under intense fishing pressure, and cutting back on the catch is the only way to insure that there will be a fishery in the future."
O'Hare pointed out that one of the crab population-enhancing moves a minimum size increase from 5 to 5 inches recently was brought back to its former 5-inch minimum because of the severe pressure applied by a number of legislators, people who believe it is their duty to provide an income for commercial crabbers. For example, it appears that some of the Eastern Shore's lawmakers don't believe the blueclaw crab of the Chesapeake Bay is in as dire straits as everybody else in the state does.
Oddly, when O'Hare recently attended a meeting of the Eastern Shore's legislative delegation, a strange thing occurred.
"Several legislators, rather than acting as a moderating force, began to lead a move to demand that the DNR loosen the regulations beyond the 15 percent limit," he said. "The watermen in the audience seemed to be willing to stay within the 15 percent, but the legislators wanted more. Ultimately, the negotiations with the DNR broke down completely and the delegation sent a demand letter to the governor. In their zeal to tear down the 15 percent goal, the legislators totally disregarded the impact that their proposal would have on the fishery in subsequent years, other than to say that the blue crab wasn't in any imminent danger. They also ignored the will of those commercial and recreational crabbers who are willing to make a sacrifice in today's catch to insure that future catches improve."
We already know what happened next. Our new governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., quickly sent down "emergency" regulations that reeked of political paybacks. The regulations, if implemented, would result in a crab harvest reduction of only 14.6 percent. That figure contained a convenient new calculation that allowed Maryland a 0.5 percent credit for its sponge crab possession ban. The emergency regulations allowed the importation of sponge crabs from April25 to July5; a minimum size for hard crabs of 5 inches from April1 to July31, and 5 inches through the end of the season on Dec.15. For peeler and soft crabs the limit would be 3 inches from April1 to July31, then 3 inches through Dec.15. O'Hare points out that previously the limit for soft crabs was 4 inches, so this was a major change.
O'Hare says the proposals heavily favor the watermen in the Tangier and Pocomoke sounds, both of which are on the Eastern Shore's side of the Chesapeake Bay. The proposals also would considerably help the seafood processors in the southern part of the Chesapeake the portion that still lies within Maryland's border.
All this despite the legislators being aware that the state's total hard crab commercial catch last year increased 3.8 percent while the recreational catch decreased 36 percent and the commercial peeler and soft crab catch decreased 29.6 percent. However, in the Tangier and Pocomoke sounds, there was a 10 percent increase in the total blue crab catch.
Said O'Hare: "They might have asked why the regulations favored the southern Bay in view of the fact that watermen there had increased their total catch, when the regulations should have decreased their catch by 15 percent. They might have asked whether relief was really necessary, when the Bay-wide catch of hard crabs increased. They might have asked why the recreational crabbers, who comprise 95 percent of the participants in the fishery but only take 7 percent of the crabs, took the greatest reduction. But they didn't."
All of which now begs the following question: Will there be any commercial crabbers, some of which said they'd be willing to make sacrifices to help the crab populations, who now voluntarily restrict themselves to harvesting only 5-inch crabs? After all, no one is forcing them to keep 5-inchers.
Suggestion: Don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
Look for Gene Mueller's Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report every Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com.

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