March 25, 2006

Crabbers Face Season With Guarded Optimism

HOOPERS ISLAND, Md. (AP) - As state biologists in Maryland and Virginia wrap up their annual winter dredge survey, crabbers face the opening of blue crab season on April 1 with cautious optimism.

The state biologists predict their annual survey of 1,500 sites on the bay will show the blue crab population stabilizing. Crabbers tend to agree. Although the blue crab population is nowhere near what it was decades ago, some crabbers grudgingly admit they are seeing the effects of the regulations and limitations put into place in recent years.

"It's not like it's been in its heyday, because of the pollution and all that, but I think it's on its upbeat. I hope so," fourth-generation waterman Roger Morris told The Washington Post. Morris, who crabs in Virginia and Maryland, was hired by the Department of Natural Resources to use his boat in the winter dredge survey.

"The restrictions we're under now have helped a bit now. I'm a waterman, and I never thought I'd say that," he said.

Those regulations, put in place after the population hit a low point six years ago, require crabbers to work for no more than eight hours a day and take one day off a week. The limits on the size of crabs that can be caught and where they can be caught have been tightened.

Those rules, combined with favorable weather, lead officials to predict steadily improving harvests.

"We're going to have another good influx of crabs," said Lynn Fegley, director of the blue crab program at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "Last year, we had the largest influx of juvenile crabs that we've seen since 1997. ... We still have that elevated influx of young crabs."

The mild winter will help, experts say. So should the state regulations that limit watermen's access to crabs. Last fall, there were so many crabs at the height of the season that some watermen had difficulty finding buyers. The surplus depressed prices.

"The biggest controlling factor on the crab population is Mother Nature," said Jack Brooks, president of the J.M. Clayton seafood company, a crab-picking plant in Cambridge on Maryland's Eastern Shore. "We've not had a whole lot of snowstorms or icing of the bay or rivers, and really it's been actually dry. With the combination of all those things, it sets up really, really nice for a good crab season."

Still, others predict the good old days may be gone for ever. Last year saw an estimated 487 million crabs in the bay, a far cry from the roughly 751 million of a decade ago. On Hoopers Island alone, several crab-picking houses have closed. Most of the 6,000 licensed crabbers in Maryland have taken up jobs driving trucks or fishing for scallops in the Atlantic to make ends meet. Only about 1,500 are earning a living from crabbing.

"It's what they used to call a crying time," said crabber Joe Hayden, 42, of the start of the season. "That's what this job is . . . a crying time."


Information from: The Washington Post,