Burton on the Bay

Vol. 8, No. 48
Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2000
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The Trouble with Crabs

Nobody knows what's going to happen. They're going to figure it out for us. It looks like all it means for us is more meetings and more confusion.

-Charlie Schnaitman, Wye Mills crabber and rowboat livery operator

Whenever I want an assessment of the crab situation, I turn to Charlie Schnaitman who, for as long as I can recall, has worked both sides of the catching of crustaceans.

His boat livery on the Wye is probably the biggest in Maryland. It caters primarily to sports crabbers, though anglers seeking perch - both white and yellow - also frequent his establishment, which is within a short cast of the public launching ramp that's often referred to as the gateway to the biggest blue crabs anywhere.

The father-and-son business also deals in crabs commercially. Many recreational crabbers who don't catch enough for a crab feast are among those from near and far who buy crustaceans from the Schnaitmans' Wye Landing operation.

Winding down now is a season during which many chicken neckers didn't get enough for their crab feasts, but it was also a season in which Charlie couldn't always sell them enough to fill their nearly empty baskets. Crabbing was lousy, he concedes, for both the pros and the amateurs.

You might say for the Schnaitmans, Charlie and son Chuck, it was a lose-lose situation. With recreational catches from low to nothing for much of the season, boat rentals were likewise. With commercial catches off equally, there were few crabs for them to market.

Business was off 60 percent on the Wye operation this year from last year, which was off from the previous year. Most recreational crabbers, like their commercial counterparts, gave up trying by August.

There was a late spurt that lured some crabbers back on the water in the fall, but then came the premature cold blasts that sent the crustaceans on their way well before the close of the season. There have been slow seasons now and then over the years, Charlie said when we chatted the other day. But none like this. None even close to 2000.
Who, me?

Does Charlie think the current study by the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee of the Chesapeake Bay Commission will lead to a solution? He hopes so, but read his plainspoken assessment at the beginning of this column. Yet he has no solutions either.

Maryland commercial crabbers want the recreational crabbers to catch less; the latter want more restrictions on watermen. Both point to dredging in Virginia, and those in Virginia - where catching is less restrictive - respond, "Who, me?"

Signs of Trouble

The Blue Crab Advisory Committee, which is made up of representatives of Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac, agrees with Charlie on excessive fishing pressure. "Fishing effort has been at record levels Baywide, while the catch-per-unit effort has declined," reads a consensus statement by the committee, which earlier this month wound up a series of 10 public forums on the crabbing situation.

That's just the tip of the iceberg. Among other ominous observations of the committee:

  • Crab numbers in all age groups are down.

  • Fishing mortality has increased Baywide since the mid-1980s.

  • Spawning stock is below the long-term average

  • Independent surveys reveal a decreasing number of legal size crabs

  • The average size of crabs has decreased. It is likely that once crabs molt to above five inches, most are harvested, thus don't have a chance to get above six inches

  • The reproductive potential of crabs could be compromised due to smaller size and fewer mature males and females.

  • There is a potential for both crabbing effort and mortality to increase - in both the recreational and commercial fishery

  • Over the past 10 years, effort in the peeler/soft crab fishery has increased substantially in Virginia - though the consequences remain unknown.

Whew, quite a list - and that's not all of it. The committee notes that the highly resilient Chesapeake crab knows no state boundaries during its complex life cycle. It's a problem for all three jurisdictions, and the committee suggests all three must take equitable hits to ensure a "vibrant" population and a sustainable fishery far into the future.

What's To Be Done?

This committee cannot implement any changes in regulations. That's up to Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Virginia Marine Resources Commission and Potomac River Fisheries Commission. But its recommendations will carry much weight, seeing that the committee is loaded with scientists and administrators from all three - including their top dogs.

Sadly, legislators will probably get in on the act once findings and recommendations are announced in January. Following are some of the possible Maryland curtailments aired during the forums.

Recreational Crabbing

  • For unlicensed crabbers, one bushel of crabs to the boat. Currently it is one bushel per person, two bushels to a boat regardless of the number aboard.

  • For licensed crabbers, one bushel per boat. Currently it is two bushels per person but no more than three to the boat. Also, a dozen peelers and soft crabs per person, which is quite a cut from three dozen now permitted.

  • For unlicensed crabbers, 10 collapsible traps and net rings to the boat. Currently it's 10 per person, 25 to the boat with two or more aboard. The maximum trotline would be 600 feet per boat. It's now 600 feet per person, 1,200 feet per boat.

  • For licensed crabbers, 30 collapsible traps and net rings to the boat. Now it's 30 per person. Trotline restrictions would be 1,200 feet per boat. It's now 1,200 feet per person.

  • Crab pots from private piers would remain at two.

Maryland Commercial Crabbers

  • Day closures for hard crabs in addition to Sundays and Mondays now closed. Depending on days of the week, the catch would be reduced 12 to 13 percent.

  • Shorter seasons, including an Oct. 15 cutoff that would reduce the catch by more than four million pounds. The season now closes Nov. 30. A closed April would spare only 333,880 pounds.

  • Reductions in crab pot limits, now from 300 to 900 pots per boat. A reduction to 270 to 450 would spare 1.4 million pounds; a drop to 200 to 600 would save 2.7 million pounds, while from 150 to 450 would reduce the catch by five million pounds.

  • Reductions in trotline lengths vary from maximums of 1,100 yards to 700 yards offering savings of from 884,652 to 2.3 million pounds.

  • Limiting crabbing hours: A 10-hour day is estimated to spare 267,546 pounds; nine hours, 761,814 pounds. A six-hour day would spare 5.9 million pounds.

There are also suggestions for peelers and soft crabs, and in Virginia there are proposed curtailments for dredging. Presumably, it will be mix and match. Once it's determined how much to reduce the catch, appropriate curtailments will be recommended.

The 10 forums were held to get preferences from crabbers, who incidentally have been told 2001 will bring crab abundance to levels comparable to 1997 through 1999. Biting the bullet can be bitter. Enough said.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly