ANNAPOLIS – Plenty of low-income, hard-working folks won’t survive if Maryland imposes a blue crab size limit that’s different from Virginia, watermen and crab pickers told a Senate panel Tuesday.
Representatives from the Dorchester County crabbing industry told the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee to consider the unseen faces – widows, senior citizens and single parents – who would lose their livelihood if the Department of Natural Resources increases the minimum size of male hard crabs from 5 to 5-and-a-quarter inches.
To slow the declining blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay, the department also has proposed increasing the minimum size of peelers from 3 to 3- and-a-half inches and soft crabs from 3-and-a-half to 4-and-a-quarter inches.
But a bill, pushed by Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, would prevent the department from adopting size limits for male hard crabs that differ from those in other jurisdictions harvesting the same stock, chiefly Virginia.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which adopted tighter crabbing regulations last week, did not impose the 5-and-a-quarter size limit on male hard crabs.
In 2000, the commonwealth, Maryland and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission agreed to a 15 percent reduction in harvests over a three-year period.
The new size limit on male hard crabs would destroy Maryland’s claim to fame, taking away a way of life for families who have been watermen and crab pickers for generations, said Evelyn Robinson. Robinson was once named the first lady of the Chesapeake Bay by the defunct Washington Star.
She joined her husband on his crabbing boat at a time when female watermen were rare because she needed to help support their four children, Robinson told lawmakers. And she wouldn’t have wanted another life, she said.
“I am a waterman. I’m the best crab picker in Maryland,” Robinson said. “I hope you let me die a proud waterman.”
Crab processing plant owners and watermen pleaded with lawmakers to consider Dorchester County’s future.
Several pointed to a recent industry study that found that about 500 people would lose their jobs when plants close because of the male- crab size restrictions. Dorchester County, 21 of the state’s 30 processors, would be hardest hit, according to the study.
Roy Meredith, a commercial waterman, said 95 percent of the county is employed in the seafood industry.
“You’ll see a whole community disappear,” he told the panel. “Please don’t let this happen.”
Already devastated by fleeing businesses, the county would lose another industry vital to the economy and to residents, said Octavene Saunders, whose family works in crab picking plants.
“I want you to see the faces of people who would lose their jobs,” Saunders said, pointing to more than a dozen crab pickers who packed a Senate room. “Think about how it’ll impact you if you lost your senators’ income. This is what people here face.”
The male crab size limit also doesn’t make ecological sense, said J.C. Tolley, whose family owns a crab processor in south Dorchester County.
Blue crabs in the upper Chesapeake Bay grow larger than those in the southern bay and in Virginia, Tolley said.
“It’s like comparing apples to oranges,” he said.
Although acknowledging the crabbing community’s concerns, Howard King of the Department of Natural Resources said the crab population in the Chesapeake Bay faces a serious problem.
In the past eight years, the blue crab harvest plummeted from a little more than 60 million pounds in 1993 to about 25 million pounds in 2001, the second-lowest in history.
The best option to manage the problem must include the male hard crab size limit, King said, noting the Potomac River Fisheries Commission also plans to adopt the 5-and-a-quarter-inch size.
To be effective by the beginning of crab season April 1, the department must adopt final version of the regulations by March 12, King said.
The hard male crab size limit would be effective Aug. 1.
Colburn asked the committee to hold off voting on his bill until after the department has decided on the regulations.