September 25, 2008

Feds Declare Blue Crab Disaster

By LIAM FARRELL Staff Writer

The federal government has issued a fishery disaster declaration for the Chesapeake Bay blue crab, potentially providing millions of dollars for watermen struggling with low harvests and tighter regulations.

Federal and state officials praised the declaration issued yesterday by Department of Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez.

"Maryland's blue crab and the traditional fishing industry that it supports face difficult times and the federal funding will help to preserve the infrastructure of Maryland's hallmark blue crab fishery, and ensure an active fishery for the future," Gov. Martin O'Malley said in a statement.

The disaster declaration was requested in May by officials from Maryland and Virginia to help the $125 million a year industry.

The bay's crab population has been in a free fall since the 1990s, losing 70 percent of its numbers. Pollution, overfishing and the loss of key underwater grasses are typically named as the biggest culprits.

In response, state regulators toughened up this year to cut the female crab harvest by 34 percent, a move the state Department of Natural Resources projects will save 20- to 26 million mature, egg- bearing females.

Recreational crabbers are prohibited from keeping females all year, and commercial watermen have tiered bushel limits and an early end to the female season.

The amount of federal money available will be worked out in the near future, but the declaration concretely makes Maryland eligible for federal dollars, said Shaun Adamec, a spokesman for Mr. O'Malley.

Previously, U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin were aiming for $15 million over three years to be shared between Maryland and Virginia.

The federal aid would come against the backdrop of exponentially larger economic plans - such as using $700 billion for Wall Street's floundering assets - being debated by the White House and Congress as the markets continue to be drowned by poor investments.

Watermen are "elated" by the declaration, said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, especially because it didn't seem like it was going to happen.

"We are pleasantly surprised," he said.

Stricter harvest regulations have combined with skyrocketing fuel and equipment prices to create an untenable economic atmosphere, Mr. Simns said.

"It was disastrous to us."

Mr. Simns credited government officials for helping out an entire industry, including employees of packing houses and truck drivers, not just the people on the water.

The money will not be a "handout," Mr. Simns said, as watermen are planning to help the state with environmental projects, such as planting underwater vegetation and cleaning oyster bars.

"They want to work for whatever they get," he said.

The hatchery debate

The declaration came the same day state officials told a State Senate subcommittee the best way to replenish the blue crab population is through regulation, not breeding crabs in a hatchery.

Logistical and economic problems mean regulation is still the better bet, said Eric Schwaab, the deputy secretary of the Department of Natural Resources.

"Are we ready to make a commitment today (to a hatchery)?" he said. "The answer from us at this point is 'no.'"

The discussion came a few weeks after John Griffin, the secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, began convening a study group on whether to provide state funding for large-scale activities at the hatchery of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute's Center of Marine Biotechnology.

Mr. Griffin sent a letter Sept. 9 to William E. Kirwan, the chancellor of the University System of Maryland, about his "serious reservations about the cost efficiency" of the hatchery.

Representatives of the center, which already has lost its federal funding, said such a stance is shortsighted because their research is ongoing and "embryonic." Regulations have not proven they can be effective either, they said, pointing to the continued problems of the bay despite tighter rules.

"We see little evidence that this traditional management approach will succeed (in increasing the crab population)," said Dr. Anson Hines, the director of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, which assists in the hatchery. "The decline continues." {Corrections:} {Status:}


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