WASHINGTON – Since new crabbing limits took effect Monday in Maryland, Gregory James said he has been relying more heavily on his boats in North Carolina to keep his business going.
“It’s forced me to outsource,” said James, of Choptank River Seafood LLC. “Crabbers can’t catch no females (in the Chesapeake Bay). The individual limits they give each crabber are done in an unfair portion — and I make 90 percent of my money from blue crab fishery.”
The new regulations, which impose daily limits on the bushels of female crabs that can be taken from the bay in September and October, are part of a larger effort to reduce the harvest of females, or “sooks,” by 34 percent.
The state in April decided to shorten the crabbing season by two months, closing it on Oct. 23. It also prohibited recreational crabbing of sooks as of June 1.
Maryland’s moves were echoed by regulators in Virginia, which cut the number of commercial crab pot licenses it issued this year by 15 percent, and shortened its crabbing season to end on Oct. 27.
All are part of an effort to protect the blue crab, whose numbers in the bay have dwindled by approximately 70 percent since the early 1990s, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
“These regulations . . . are definitely making a big impact on crabbers’ ability to make money, so it’s certainly understandable that they don’t like it,” said Brenda Davis, a fisheries biologist with the DNR.
The latest restrictions, the bushel limits, are staggered according to the size of the operation. As of Monday, large commercial crabbing operations were limited to 30 bushels a day, with limits dropping as low as a bushel a day for small operations. In October, traditionally a good month for crabbing, the limits will go from one bushel a day for the smallest crabbers to 50 a day for the largest operations.
But Jack Brooks, a fourth-generation crabber and owner of J.M. Clayton Co. in Cambridge, said limiting crabbing at this time of year is like closing a beach during the summer.
“October here is like going to Ocean City and saying, ‘Hey, we’re taking the month of July away from you,'” Brooks said. “We sell this crab meat that we pick in the winter months until the spring months arrive. . . . We’re going to feel it, no question.”
Davis said crabbers were told of their smaller bushel numbers in July and had until August to appeal them if they found them too small. Of the approximately 200 appeals the department received, it changed only “a few” bushel limits, Davis said.
“They were perhaps not so happy with the way we did it, but . . . many of (the crabbers) realize that reductions need to be made,” she said.
Brooks said the restrictions will likely cost Dorchester County as much as $20 million in lost revenue, according to calculations he did with the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, a seafood-processing non-profit of which he is president.
The restrictions, which prohibit recreational crabbing of all female crabs except soft crabs, are among the most severe ever to come to the Chesapeake Bay.
The last time there were restrictions on crab fishery was in 2001, but that effort at reducing harvest numbers had little effect on increasing the blue crab population, Davis said.
“The big difference between what happened previously and these regulations is that the last time Virginia did not close their harvest. These regulations are bay-wide,” she said.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association board of directors, said restrictions are misdirected. He said the better strategy would be combating nutrient pollution, long a problem in the bay because of the contribution of phosphorous- and nitrogen-dumping to “dead zones,” oxygen-depleted areas in the water. Crabs require oxygen to live.
“You got to be harsh on developers and you got to be harsh on municipalities,” Simns said. “You can’t keep dumping in the bay . . . and expect to have a resource there.”