- The Washington Times - Monday, April 14, 2008

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — It was a good thing a police officer was there when commercial watermen and recreational crabbers gathered recently to talk about dwindling blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay.

With the Chesapeake’s hallmark seafood product becoming so scarce that Maryland and Virginia are weighing deep cuts to the crab harvest, tempers were short.

Hobbyist crabbers balked at arguments from the pros that the states’ surveys may be wrong, that crabs aren’t so bad off and the harvest shouldn’t be cut as severely as state regulators are considering — up to 40 percent of the female harvest slashed for an undetermined amount of time until the stock revives.

And the professional crabbers jeered at the recreational fishermen when they spoke in favor of the harvest reductions.

At one point, despite entreaties from state officials to remember the meeting was being held in a church, the professional crabbers shouted insults at a hobbyist and then stormed out of the room. No one came to blows, but for a few moments, it seemed possible.

Times are bad for the Chesapeake crabbers, and as crabs are disappearing, old tensions between professional watermen and sportsmen are growing stronger. Both are jockeying for the remaining crabs.

The rivalry has always existed, but with the crab population down for a decade, and more harvest cuts expected in both Maryland and Virginia, the dispute is getting ugly.

“Here we go again, begging for our livelihood,” said waterman Den Beck of Essex, speaking so loudly he didn’t need the microphone provided by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources for crabbers to air their complaints at the meeting.

The harvest cuts would ratchet back the female catch in an effort to protect more reproducing adult females called sooks (rhymes with “books”). Options include a new size limit, lower bushel limits and even an all-out ban on catching sooks for several weeks in the fall, when the females are easily caught as they head south to warmer water.

Virginia is considering similar options. More details about the potential cuts were expected to be announced tomorrow, when Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley was to meet with Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine in Colonial Beach, Va. The governors planned to announce the results of a winter dredge survey that all signals indicate will show another bad year for crabs.

“Our first responsibility is to restore and then sustain the blue crab population,” said DNR Secretary John Griffin.

Potential reductions were announced for recreational crabbers, too. The department may suggest a complete ban on recreational crabbers keeping females, and regulators also are expected to restrict the times that hobbyists can catch crabs.

But as tempers flared at the recent meeting, it became obvious neither side is happy with how the other is being managed.

Pros complain that DNR doesn’t keep track of how many crabs hobbyists catch, questioning estimates that recreational crabbers catch less than 10 percent of an annual harvest. Watermen also took issue with a potential change to catch limits on recreational crabbers that some pros contend could lead to more crabs being taken by the amateurs.

“They’re taking from the watermen and giving to the recreational,” said Richard Young of Dundalk, a professional crabber.

Some were more blunt.

“If they make these regulations stick, they might as well come into my house and take food off my table,” said professional waterman Thomas Dean Jr. of Point Lookout in St. Mary’s County. Dean believes only professionals should be allowed to crab. “They don’t belong out there at all,” he said of the hobbyists.

But recreational crabbers insist that they’re not to blame for the fishery’s woes, and that crabs don’t belong to the pros any more than anyone else.

“The resource belongs to the people. The resource does not belong to commercial crabbers,” said Robert Glenn, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, a group that frequently clashes with professional fishermen.

“We are not cold-hearted or unsympathetic” to the watermen’s plight, Glenn said. But he said cutting back the harvest is necessary to save the crabs, even if the cut means some crabbers go out of business. “Nobody’s protected from economic harm.”

Watermen reply that they should get what crabs remain because their livelihoods depend on them.

“I raised my kids doing this. I hoped to do it with my grandkids,” said waterman Brian Abt of Miller’s Island. “But at this point, I don’t think that’s going to be possible.”

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