Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab numbers have declined to somewhere around 120 million adults when 200 million are needed to maintain a thriving population, according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released earlier this week.

That statement alone contributes mightily to having a bushel of crabs go for as much as $200 and waterfront restaurants charging anywhere from $35 to $40 for a dozen medium-sized, steamed crabs. One restaurant near Baltimore wants $90 for a dozen jumbo crabs. That doesn’t sit well during a time of outrageous gasoline prices. Many families simply don’t visit local crab emporiums as often as they might if prices were lower.

Because of a dearth of Chesapeake crabs, four months ago Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine announced their commitment to rebuild the crab population by instructing state regulators and scientists to come up with plans to restore this threatened fishery.

In Maryland, where the estimated 2007 crab harvest was 21.8 million pounds - 6 million below the 2006 harvest - regulations were passed that prohibit the recreational harvesting of hard or peeler female crabs and the commercial harvesting of immature females and sharply reduce the take of adult females.

However, Christy and Michael Henderson, who own Buzz’s Marina on St. Jerome’s Creek in Southern Maryland, seem to think everything is fine.

“We’ve seen commercial and recreational crabbers return to our marina, their bushels filled with crabs,” Christy Henderson says.

Adds Michael Henderson: “Some of the watermen sell their crabs for $40 per bushel wholesale.”

Then there’s Jim Harris, a licensed commercial trotline crabber who works with long lines that are the thickness of venetian blind cord and a piece of chicken neck, eel bait or cow snout held in a slip knot spaced three or four feet apart. Harris, a huge man with a normally sunny disposition, goes after Patuxent River crabs near the St. Mary’s County shore.

“So far this year my income is down 14 percent over last year,” he says. “My catch has more ups and downs than usual, [but] there are a lot of small crabs, many more than the last few years.”

Whenever Harris locates good-sized crabs - something approaching the 6-inch mark when measured from spike to spike - he says the quality of them has been a little better this season. However, that changed last week when big Jimmies (male crabs) were hard to come by.

Harris believes one of the problems is that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is allowing commercial pound-netters to keep a two-bushel-a-day crab “by-catch” in his river. That means if the netters find crabs inside the mesh intended to trap finfish, they can keep two bushels of the clawed delicacies, which bothers sport and commercial crabbers alike.

“It’s a joke,” says Harris, who knows there isn’t always a bona fide fishing effort by the pound-netters. “[Some nets] are set to catch crabs only, which I feel is illegal.”

As concerns the by-catch allowance for fish netters, Harris says he sees no law enforcement, no rigorous checking by the Natural Resources Police.

“These traps are catching crabs 24 hours a day, [but] I’m allowed only 10 hours to do my job because of the shortage of crabs,” he says.

The trotliner says if the size limit of male crabs were raised to 5 1/2 inches all season long and the harvest of female crabs were closed throughout October, the crabs would rebound faster. Plus, the larger size would mean fewer crabs would be needed to fill a bushel, thus limiting the amount removed. Harris also said the most important factor during these days of diminished supplies of most of the Chesapeake Bay’s shellfish and finfish is water quality.

Licensed trotliner Bob Rice, who carefully studies and keeps records of current and past blue crab successes, says his catch was worse in 2007 than in 2006 and worse yet in 2008.

“It’s been steadily going downhill every since the oyster fishery crashed and more and more watermen turned to crabbing,” Rice says.

“If this resource is then allowed to be overfished, there will be very little alternative fishery opportunities to take its place,” Rice says. “I don’t mean to imply that crabbing has merely suffered from overfishing; to the contrary, pollution, [harmful] runoff and other problems [that] have degraded the water quality have made it almost impossible for the crabs to find enough late-season oxygenated healthy water to sustain themselves. The Maryland DNR has taken some action in an attempt to improve the fishery by imposing reductions in the numbers of female crabs that can be taken. I believe that they should immediately reduce the female crab take even further.”

  • Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail:
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