Bill Burton on the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 20
May 17-23, 2001
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Blue Crabs:
Worth Their Weight in Gold

Those who fail history tests are doomed to repeat them.

-The comic strip Shoe: May 14, 2001

How true. Maryland's watermen are once again taking their history tests and once again appear doomed to fail. If so, all of us will share in the failure. So we've got something to crab about.

Crabs are precious. Edible live Maryland crabs were selling for as much as $140 a bushel. That's if you could get them.

How hard is crab-catching these days? Ask a recreational crabber. You probably won't get an answer, just a blank stare. Which is answer enough.

Ask those in the business, and you'll detect a grimace. What good are all the high prices if you aren't catching enough crabs to cash in?

Memorial Day is less than three weeks away, and about five weeks later is the Fourth of July, both ordinarily big crab feast days. Who knows what lies that far down the road. It's difficult enough to know what's going on now.
What the Gurus Say

I turned to my usual crab gurus. Glum were Joe Bernard, of Wye River Seafood in Queenstown, and Charlie Schnaitman, who operates a boat livery for recreational crabbers on the Wye and is also involved in a family crabbing business.

They admitted not knowing what lies ahead, but they did know how things are now. Joe said "horrible." Charlie said "terrible."

Crab Famine

One of Joe's prime suppliers for local crabs worked 4,000 feet of trot lines for five days in the Chester River, Queenstown Creek-Corsica section. One day it was four crabs; that's crabs, not bushels. The next it was 20, then 25, followed by three-quarters of a bushel. Then back to 20 crabs.

Charlie's son Chuck started his season this week working a pair of 2,400-foot lines. "He got three whole crabs," said Charlie, who added he had a friend who sampled the Choptank. "He didn't even see a crab."

A sampling of prices: Local hard crabs dockside, $110. Not much less if not the same or more for Carolina and Georgia crabs of inferior quality. Backfin crabmeat, $16 a pound; jumbo, $22 a pound; foreign (Mexico), $19 a pound.

Rules & Resistance

Meanwhile, watermen vigorously complain about planned catch curtailments affecting them. The Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee rejected, at the behest of commercial crabbers, emergency Maryland Department of Natural Resources regulations that limited daily crabbing to eight hours.

Scientists of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration claim steps being taken are not sufficient. More must be done, they say, and quickly. Gov. Parris Glendening, overriding the Review Committee's decision, announced he will by July 23 impose regulations implementing the eight-hour day and will tighten rules to ensure watermen take a full day off each week.

Because of time lost due to the resistance among commercial crabbers to the original proposed curtailments, the guv will shorten the season this year by one month. November will be closed.

It's a quagmire. Some watermen predict the whole issue will end up in the courts. The Blue Crab Conservation Coalition, an industry group based in Somerset County, disputes accusations of over-harvesting and warns of economic chaos in the $400-million crabbing business.

The Coalition believes the reduction in catches by curtailments will be 30 percent - more than four times DNR's predicted seven percent. Incredibly, it insists that recreational crabbers (who are taking a bigger hit) are "non-contributors to the conservation effort."

Of course, there are claims - despite all the gloom and doom - of huge populations of smaller crabs in the lower Bay.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

History repeats itself. When shad numbers declined to precipitous levels 20 years ago, netters stalled moratorium efforts with talk of many fish unaccounted for here 'n' there. They did the same when a striped bass shutdown was suggested a year later. Now we know the closing of the two fisheries worked. Rock have more than recovered, and shad are finally getting there.

Maybe I'm wrong, but methinks the crab situation is as bad or worse than that of shad and stripers when moratoriums were finally implemented. Continued resistance by watermen to any crabbing curtailments puts the entire fishery at great risk.

Of course, in the end there is the remote possibility I might have to eat crow. I'd do so happily because I'd also be eating affordable Maryland crabs. Enough said.

2001 Recreational Crab Regulations

Licenses. The fee for those 16 and over is $2 additional if one holds a Bay sportsfishing license. It's $5 for residents with no fishing license; $10 non-residents. It's $15 for the new Recreational Crabbing Boat Sportsfishing license, and those who possess a $20 Chesapeake Bay Special Pleasure Boat Sportsfishing license can crab without a license.

Exemptions: A license is not required for those tending 10 or fewer traps or rings or for those using dip nets and hand lines who catch no more than two dozen hard crabs and no more than one dozen soft or peeler crabs. Also two pots can be fished from a private pier or within 100 yards of shore if attached by line.

A license is required of those who use a trotline the maximum length of which can be 1,200 feet; those who fish 11 to 30 traps or rings; those who possess more than two dozen, with a limit of one bushel hard crabs; or more than a dozen hard crabs, with a limit of two dozen soft or peeler crabs.

Closure: No recreational crabbing Wednesdays other than for dip nets or pots at private piers.

Hours: In the Bay proper, 5:30am to 5pm. In tributaries, 5:30am to legal sunset.

Minimum size: Hard crabs, 5 inches; soft 312 inches; peelers, 3 inches.

Crabbing gear: If a boat is licensed (either Recreational Crabbing Boat license or Chesapeake Bay Special Pleasure Boat license) or if at least one person on board possesses an individual crabbing license, those aboard can collectively use 1,200 feet of trotline or up to 30 rings and traps. No limit on hand lines or dip nets.

Catch limits: Without any crabbers who also possess an individual license in a licensed boat, the limit is one bushel of hard crabs, two dozen soft crabs or peelers.

If two or more licensed crabbers are in a licensed boat, the limit is two bushels of hard crabs, two dozen soft crabs or peelers. Without any licensed crabbers in a licensed boat, the limit is four dozen hard crabs, one dozen soft or peeler crabs. With one licensed crabber in a boat and others who have no license, the boat limit is one bushel of hard crabs, two dozen soft or peeler crabs.

If two or more licensed crabbers are in an unlicensed boat, the boat limit is two bushels of hard crabs, four dozen soft crabs or peelers.

· Miscellaneous: A crabber less than 16 who does not possess a license is restricted to the same catch as any unlicensed crabber, but if a license is in possession, the catch would be the same as for any licensed crabber.

Possession limits for soft and peeler crabs do not apply on recreational boats and charterboats when sportsfishing.

-Bill Burton

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly