ANNAPOLIS – Following months of debate, Natural Resources Secretary C. Ronald Franks Friday announced relaxed crabbing regulations, which he said could be in effect by the April 1 start of the season.
Legislators and watermen, who claimed the Department of Natural Resources had gone too far with new regulations last year, said they were pleased by Franks’ proposed changes.
In an attempt to protect a threatened crab population, the rules DNR rolled out last year reduced the amount of crabs caught by 18 percent, overshooting the 15 percent target Maryland and Virginia had agreed on.
The watermen’s most welcome change reduces minimum sizes for hard crabs and peelers to 5 inches and 3.25 inches respectively from April 1 to July 31, then increase them to 5.25 inches and 3.5 inches from Aug. 1 through the end of the season.
Also, the length of the crabbers’ workday would remain the same, although the DNR would be able to adjust working hours during “code red” air quality days, when pollution makes working outside hazardous.
Although the relief for watermen is “probably not all that they would like,” the changes would “benefit the crabs, the crabbers, and those of us who like to eat (crabs),” Franks said.
The changes would bring “meaningful relief” for watermen in the coming season, some of whom had seen their incomes cut by 40 percent last year, said Delegate Kenneth Schisler, R-Talbot.
However, there would be a lot of “inherent conservation,” as many watermen had taken land jobs because of hardship imposed by last year’s crab regulations and the poor state of the oyster fishery, he said.
Although it would have been nice to see the workday extended, these changes are an “excellent step,” and the new flexibility on “code red” days would be very welcome, said waterman Bob Newberry.
Another rule change – permitting packing houses to import sponge crabs, which are illegal to catch in Maryland – was a mixed blessing, as it will help packing houses, but increase the market for the crabs in Virginia, said Mickey Hamilton, a Kent Island waterman and crab processor.
That the department decided to weaken the regulations was “disappointing,” but understandable given the pressure it was under, said Sherman Baynard, chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland’s fisheries committee.
The group hasn’t decided yet whether or not it will challenge the regulations when they go to the General Assembly, he said.
In addition to the regulatory changes, Franks announced he was reconvening the Maryland Blue Crab Task Force, to examine the regulations’ effect and to reconsider some of the basic science on which the department relied.
The task force was due to be reconvened anyway, as Maryland and Virginia need to decide what happens at the end of 2003, the last year specified in their agreement, said Peter Jensen, DNR’s deputy secretary.
The department will hold a public hearing on the proposed regulations from 6 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. March 27 at the Talbot County Library, 100 W. Dover St. in Easton.