Burton on the Bay:

Singing the Blue Crab Blues...

Lots of long, nasty fingers are pointed, but the enemy is us

I see by the newspapers that once again a problem with Maryland crab landings is blamed on rockfish. Ho hum, same old story.

The current price and availability of crabs isn't an old story, but we'll get into that in a moment.

Maybe rockfish eat a crab now and then, maybe even more frequently, but let's be reasonable. Rockfish aren't why crab prices are skyrocketing and the supply at low ebb.

Pointing the biggest, longest and nastiest fingers at rockfish are commercial fishermen. Too bad striped bass can't talk. They could end all this foolishness by responding "You're right, there is a shortage of crabs, and it's time you (commercial fishermen) and I (rockfish) cut back dramatically on our catches."

End of discussion. End of controversy.

Look at the record - whether it be 43 years back or three years back. As soon as it's suggested that a possible solution to a fisheries/crab problem would be to reduce the catch, the problem figuratively goes away.

Promptly, the subject is dropped. Heaven forbid that shortages could be solved as simply as curtailing harvests - especially harvests by those who traffic in the commodity at issue.

One needs only remember three years ago when crabs' woes made the news big time. Some even suggested crabs could be on the way out: catches were down, surveys indicated population woes and most everyone wanted action. To a point.

Soon as suggestions for possible solutions got around to targeting the number of pots that could be worked, long lines used, the number of catch licenses issued and just plain catching less, a miracle occurred. Why, there wasn't that much of a problem after all - just some cyclical thing: "It had happened before; it will happen again."

In that last crab go-around, Parris Glendening - who, incidentally, likes to go crabbing - wasn't long in office. He probably had no inkling of the repercussions once anyone in authority starts meddling in any aspect of commercial fisheries.

It didn't take him long to learn the ropes. A big meeting or two, angry protests, demonstrations, accusations and a few threats - and the Guv got an education. That mess ended up with more curtailments targeted to the sports crab fishery than its commercial counterpart, which of course ignited outcries from sports crabbers.

The Guv had a tiger by the tail, and caught in the middle was DNR, with the impossible task of trying to please watermen, sports crabbers, the ultimate boss in the governor's office, delegates, senators, the whole shooting match.

The current crab controversy hasn't approached that level yet, though crab catches are worse. Could it be this is an election year and it's figured the less said, the better? If you know the answer, it's not a question.


Same Old Scapegoats

Yet the old scapegoats are center stage again. Rockfish and Virginians who dredge crabs. They're easy to blame; rockfish can't talk and Virginia watermen neither talk nor vote here.

Virginia has created some crab sanctuaries, but it still hasn't done enough to indicate it's taking the problem seriously.

As for rockfish, one can always refer to a thorough study several years back that was pretty conclusive in its observations that crabs are not an important ingredient in the diet of striped bass.

That report prompted me to do a little unscientific research. I have since examined the stomach contents of most rock I have caught and cleaned or cleaned for someone else. My tally, 213 stripers dressed; 12 crabs found gulped down by fish.

There were some parts of crabs in stomachs, but they were obviously from the hooks of fishermen who prefer crab baits, as I do. But rockfish don't take bites of live crabs; they're not like blues, whose sharp teeth take bites. Rock ingest the whole crab.

It will take a lot of doing to convince this writer that rock are the culprit in this mess. The enemy, as Pogo claimed, is us - people who catch and eat crabs.

The reasoning behind the fingering of rock as the demons doesn't take a rocket scientist. The best way to reopen rockfishing - as during the moratorium - or now when some participants in the sports fishery want more liberal rockfish regulations is easy. Blame the fish for eating all the crabs.

Good try fellas. A novel approach, but without merit.


What's the Real Problem?

Look where we are today. The July crab harvest was the lowest on record, 4.6 million pounds. The year's catch through July was 14.1 million pounds - 3.7 million below the average.

The big Millard Tawes political crabfeast at Crisfield featured North Carolina crabs; they're the only ones the sponsors could afford. Joe Bernard at Wye River Soups and Spices in Queen Annes tells me wholesale prices as of Monday were $85 to $90 a bushel for Maryland crabs when you could get them. Traditionally, this is the time the bottom falls out of prices.

Watermen with hundreds of pots or thousands of yards of trotlines don't catch enough to pay their fuel bills. Then along comes Hurricane Bonnie, and the North Carolina supply is cut off. South Carolina crabs aren't up to snuff in the taste department, and Texas crabs won't come until later. Either way, transportation costs are outlandish.

Fellows like me who want soft crabs for rockfish bait often can't buy them. Clyde's Sports Shop in Landsdowne didn't have one and didn't know when to expect them. At Angler's on Route 50, the supply was little, the price high, $3.50 for a single whale or huge softie, $1.95 for peelers or small softies, but even stocking them was an accomplishment. They're just not available.

Len Popa, who in the last crab crisis founded the Maryland Sports Crabbers Association (with a membership of 250) still claims two things.

1. Too many crabs are being caught.

2. Sports crabbers bear the brunt of restrictions because they don't have the clout.

Len agrees that all-you-can-eat crab house play a role in the demand, which means more pressure to catch more crabs. "I've seen people just cut out the lump fins, not even bother with the legs or anything else not readily available, and toss the rest in the garbage," he lamented.

The bottom line: the less of a crab that is eaten, the more crabs needed to satisfy the customers' appetite in an all-you-can-eat outlet. When consumers pay for crabs by the dozen, they pick them clean; no need to do so when as soon as the current pile is gone, the waitress brings another.

Same with late summer roadside stands whose signs advertise buy a bushel, get one free. Those crabs, according to Popa, are not much above trash - and that's where many end up. "I've gone into woods in back of some of them and have found heaps of crabs dumped when they didn't sell," says Popa, who incidentally says if you're interested in joining MSCA, call 410/360-7241.

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VolumeVI Number 35
September 3-9, 1998
New Bay Times

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