|Blue Crab Health Takes Backseat to Politics
People scratched their heads as word spread like wildfire yesterday that the Maryland General Assembly's Joint Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee rejected emergency restrictions to reduce pressure on the commercial crab fishery. It was a baffling decision. After all, new albeit slightly watered-down regulations for recreational crabbers were approved by the state legislature last month, and many felt that if chicken neckers are to take a hearty bite (as they should) of the conservation apple, so should the commercial guys.
The committee's inaction is hard to fathom, particularly after the Bi-State Blue Crab Advisory Committee, which had studied the declining crab stocks for two years, recommended a 15-percent total reduction in the catch over the next three years to enhance annual crab spawning potential. How the committee failed to appreciate the urgency of the crab's plight is boggling.
The evidence that crabs are in trouble is compelling. In particular, annual winter surveys have shown the Bay crab population now has fewer mature females and smaller, less-fertile males. What didn't the Review Committee understand about the Advisory Committees precedent-setting consensus, which read in part "changes in management Baywide are needed to ensure a sustainable fishery far into the future"?
It appears that political pressure brought to bear by commercial interests and testimony from watermen who opposed the restrictions convinced the legislative committee, in a 6 to 5 vote, to reject the emergency measures. The fact that several key members of the committee, who would have supported the action, did not show up for the vote is also confusing.
Ironically, Virginia, which has often dragged its feet on Bay conservation measures, will close its blue crab fishery for six Wednesdays from June to August, reduce winter dredge limits and limit licensed recreational crabbers to help preserve crab stocks. State officials have said that new restrictions will take effect virtually immediately. Though whether these new regulations will actually help conserve crabs remains to be seen, the state at least recognizes that a problem exists.
As expected, the Maryland committee's inaction drew criticism from recreational crabbers and members of the conservation community. Sherman Baynard of Coastal Conservation Association expressed disappointment in the committee's decision, saying that putting the interests of vested parties ahead of those blue crabs was detrimental. Others had similar reactions.
Stew Harris, Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Maryland fisheries scientist, said "We are disappointed that Maryland did not follow through with conservation regulations, particularly after Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission did their part to help protect the declining crab population."
Maryland Department of Natural Resources had submitted plans to implement the changes by July 23. Now Gov. Parris Glendening could cut the crabbing season short or shorten the watermen's workday and force them to take off Sunday or Monday to reduce the harvests. But all of this political wrangling and grandstanding could have been avoided.
While the future of blue crabs, an enduring symbol of our Bay, hangs in precarious imbalance, it is certain that we will be paying a higher price for local Bay crabs at market. More importantly, we have delayed taking action to stabilize our most valuable fishery.