Bill Burton on the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 16
April 19-25, 2001
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Competing for Crabs

Oh, call it by some better name.
Ballads and Songs by Thomas Moore: 1779-1852

A name is a name is a name. But keep in mind, it's only a name. It's what's behind that name that counts. A name can be downright misleading.

It's not uncommon in these days of spin for, let's say, the coal-mining industry to spawn a group that goes by a name like CARE for Conservation Approach Regarding the Environment or such. You get the drift; let the name do the talking. Everyone is busy these days, so who looks beyond a name?

Perhaps it's time we should. Names, like looks, can be deceiving. For instance, there's the new Blue Crab Conservation Coalition, which I've seen mentioned in the press of late.

One would assume - if one didn't look beyond the name - that BCCC, which incidentally is based in Crisfield, is an organization whose primary goal is to get into the nitty-gritty conservation aspects of conserving the Chesapeake's blue crabs. Assume again.

After digesting the group's stance as published in letters to the editor, guest columns and other communications here and there, I've come to the conclusion that BCCC is not only an acronym but also the classic example of a misnomer.

Perhaps it should be CCC, though in this instance certainly not to be confused with the old Civilian Conservation Corps of the era of the Great Depression, a group dedicated to conservation. The new CCC would be the acronym for Coalition to Continue Catching, which is what BCCC is all about. It's a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Small wonder that going into the final stages of crab management planning for 2001 - and belatedly, seeing as the season is already underway - we're not going to approach a catch reduction of 15 percent as originally intended.

As recently deposed tidewater fisheries chief Pete Jensen (see "Dock of the Bay") said the day after his forced retirement, it will be more like five percent.

Methinks actual catches might be down more than 15 percent, but not because of curtailments implemented by Maryland Department of Natural Resources or the General Assembly but because there aren't that many crabs in the mighty Chesapeake to catch.

Laying Down the Crabbing Law

In their finite (certainly not infinite) wisdom, the General Assembly not only watered down recreational crab regulations but also slipped in a few bits of legislation to effectively lessen the impact on watermen reluctant to accept curtailments to save blue crabs.

Legislators decreed in emergency legislation that DNR cannot dictate a work day of less than eight hours for commercial crabbers, no exceptions. Also that the department cannot regulate watermen's time frames for setting and retrieving their trotlines within their work day. This, of course, means they can do so outside their eight-hour days. Recreational crabbers have no such loopholes.

Another legislative dictate would allow crab potters to place obstruction rings in their pots for the catching of peeler crabs. But the biggest bone of contention relates to the hours watermen can work, which is obvious in BCCC propaganda.

We'll get into that in a moment, but first the bottom line: Despite legislators' successful efforts to dilute DNR's recreational crab bill, non-commercial crabbers will bear the brunt of sacrifices made in '01. Somehow, commercial watermen usually manage to get the better deal.

Blame Someone Else

BCCC chairman Terrence N. Conway complains that under DNR's proposals, watermen would have their work day reduced from 6:15am to 2:15pm. Also, that they could work only 48-hour weeks during a season of 180 days.

There is also the gripe that by establishing definite hours - in addition to a firmly enforced day off each week - watermen could be forced to go out in foul weather and waters to bring in their catches within the legal perimeters set by DNR.

Conway seems to overlook that all of this is just what crab managers seek. They want to reduce catches, and it is obvious they must. When a species is in trouble, prudent managers are charged with cutting catches - not providing catching opportunity for those who harvest whether they be commercial or recreational.

There is also the complaint that the watermen's influence in commercial fishery management is not as effective in Annapolis as that of lobbyists in Armani suits representing other groups in dealings with legislators. Another oversight. Few lobbyists have the clout and the expertise of Maryland Watermen's Association president Larry Simns in both the General Assembly and the department. He does his job well.

BCCC wants regulation and licensing of recreational crabbers, and it accuses them of taking one-half the total Maryland harvest, which is hard to believe. It also wants increased catches of hardheads by charterboats to lessen the numbers of the species blamed for devouring young crabs. Curiously, only in the past several years have hardheads bounced back after being virtually absent for decades in much of Maryland's share of the Bay.

The blame-someone-else theme continues. Suggesting they gobble up 72 million crabs a year, the group wants more rockfish caught. Seems everyone - whether fish or recreational crabbers - other than watermen must be expected to curtail their quest for crabs.

BCCC gave skimpy reference to what probably is the biggest problem with crabs, probably moreso than the excessive catches of late by both human and fish. They want "environmental policy makers to take a closer look at how sewer systems are flooding Bay water with effluent that kills marine fish." No mention of the loss of Bay grasses needed so much as vital protective habitat for young crabs and adult crabs when in the soft shell and peeler stages.

Look, I respect watermen and their endeavors to provide seafood for those who don't catch their own. But there are times when conservation must rate above catching - and that's where we are now.

Paying to Play

Now here's what recreational crabbers face to the best that I can figure out as I weed through the recreational crabbing licensing bill that will presumably be signed quickly by Gov. Parris Glendening, if he hasn't already done so.

There will be a $5 recreational license fee, $2 if crabbers have a tidal fishing license. Non-residents would pay $10.

Required would be a license to work a trotline, use 11 to 30 traps or rings and have in possession more than 24 crabs a person with a limit of one bushel to the boat - or more than a dozen soft or peeler crabs with a boat, limit of 24.

As expected, a license would not be required of crabbers under 16 years of age. But curiously, those who can afford waterfront property would also be exempted.

The General Assembly went even further, possibly defeating much of the purpose of a licensing system: helping researchers - who don't even have a rough estimate at this time - get a handle on what recreational crabbers really catch. Legislators exempted from licensing those who work 10 or fewer traps or rings and those who dipnet or use a handline - if they have in their possession 24 or fewer crabs, or one dozen or fewer peeler or soft crabs.

Licenses would make it possible to work one 1,200-foot trotline, a maximum of 30 crab or ring traps and unlimited handlines or dipnets.

Not in the original plan is a new $15 boat license akin to that for fishing ($40) that covers those in the craft. One person in a boat can take a bushel, and the limit for more than one aboard is two bushels. One 1,200-foot trotline can be used. No more than 24 peelers or soft crabs to the boat.

For an unlicensed boat with no licensed crabbers aboard, it would be a maximum of four dozen crabs and a dozen peelers or soft crabs. Licensed crabbers in an unlicensed boat could take a maximum of two bushels of hard crabs and four dozen peelers or soft crabs.

DNR itself is still trying to figure out the fine print in the General Assembly's bill. Stay tuned.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly