Some state lawmakers are joining the fight against regulations designed to slow the declining blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay region.
A bill, pushed by Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, would prevent Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources from adopting size limits for male hard crabs that are different from those in other jurisdictions harvesting the same stock, chiefly Virginia.
The regulations, announced in December, increase the minimum size of male hard crabs from 5 to 5 1/4 inches, peelers from 3 to 3 1/2 inches and soft crabs from 3 1/2 to 4 1/4.
“It’s a quarter-inch that will kill an industry,” Colburn said of the hard crab limit.
The new rules also would extend the crabbing season to Dec. 15 and ban possession of sponge crabs, or pregnant female crabs, which already may not be harvested in Maryland. The restriction is aimed at discouraging the harvest of sponge crabs in other states by eliminating the Maryland market.
In 2000, Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission agreed to a 15 percent reduction in harvests over a three-year period.
Virginia is considering size limits on peelers and soft crabs, but not the lucrative male hard crabs.
Maryland’s new restrictions begin April 1, except for the hard male crab size limit effective Aug. 1. Those toughened regulations mean the state should meet its goal a year early.
Speaking before Eastern Shore lawmakers Friday, Delegate John Wood, D-St. Mary’s, said difficult choices need to be made to increase the crab population and ensure the industry’s future.
In the past eight years, the blue crab harvest has plummeted from a little more than 60 million pounds in 1993 to about 25 million pounds in 2001, the second-lowest in history.
“Are they good changes? We all question whether they are or not,” Wood said. “But if we don’t do anything, we know there will be a problem.”
One of the regulations’ goals is to double the spawning crab stock, said Ann Swanson of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
“I firmly believe if you use this approach, you’ll have more crabs,” she said at an Eastern Shore Delegation meeting.
About 500 people would lose their jobs when processing plants close because of the male-crab size restrictions and the sponge crab ban, according to a recent study commissioned by crab processors. Dorchester County would be hardest hit with 21 of 30 processors there, according to the study.
Virginia would get a competitive edge and crabbers would face an unfair burden under the new limits, said representatives of Maryland’s crabbing industry.
“The key is what Virginia does,” said Larry Simns of the Maryland Watermen’s Association. “I really think we’re playing Russian Roulette with the 5-1/4. If we lose the picking houses, they won’t come back.”
J.C. Tolley, whose family has owned a crab processor in south Dorchester County since 1920, said he would go out of business with the new male hard crab size limit.
“I want everyone to know after 80-something years, we’re toast,” he said.
Some Eastern Shore lawmakers also questioned whether the Department of Natural Resources considered the economic and social impact of the new crabbing regulations.
“How much more can the poorest county (Dorchester) tolerate?” asked Delegate Rudolph Cane, D-Wicomico. “There is a concept at work to make Dorchester County disappear.”
Final version of the regulations is expected in March. Public hearings are scheduled for next week in Salisbury, Arnold and Solomons.