A better way to ensure the bay's bounty

More crabs to catch and fewer rules by which to catch 'em.

That'd be the Holy Grail for Chesapeake watermen. It's why top crabbers in Maryland, from Havre de Grace to Smith Island, have been traveling monthly, for the past 18 months, to long and sometimes contentious meetings with state regulators.

Their Blue Crab Design Team is a unique and immensely hopeful development in the long history of harvesting the bay's seafood. I give watermen and Maryland's Department of Natural Resources lots of credit for trying it.

The goal is to break with the commercial fisheries management that's been traditional here and other places — regulators trying to make it harder to fish for watermen who in turn try to fish harder.

It recalls a dock builder who told me some creative ways to avoid regulations on the size of my dock. "You must lie awake every night thinking that up," I joked.

"I do lie awake every night thinking that up — it's my living," he said. Regulators only thought about him eight hours a day, he figured.

With blue crabs, however, the fishing rules have piled up on the fishermen in recent years, creating "a system that is no longer satisfactory to us or to the fishing industry," says Steve Early, a DNR official on the current design project.

For crabs it's been fine. A welter of restrictions on harvests has dramatically increased their population from historic lows less than a decade ago.

Ecologically, the bay's blue crab fishery, accounting for a third of the nation's landings of the toothsome crustacean, is close to being healthy and sustainable.

But economic sustainability for the crabbers may be heading the other way. When storms Irene and Lee hit the bay last year, for example, crabbers missed the fall migration of sooks (mature females). Even though catches were certainly below catch quotas, the rules did not allow extending the season to let fishermen recoup.

Similarly, if strong winds blow early in the day, then subside, the rules still end the crabbing day in early afternoon. A crabber's choice is to lose money or risk his boat, or maybe his life.

And if a crabber chooses, say, Monday as his required day off, and something makes him leave the water on one of his six work days, he cannot make it up by crabbing the next Monday.

"If your boat breaks, or your arm breaks, and you miss your quota, you can't recover," says Bill Seiling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industry Association.

Last month, the blue crab team launched its first pilot project. Seventy five watermen, including team members, are going out with a variety of digital devices they will use to file details of everything they caught before they even reach land.

Random third party monitoring and crab buyers' records will provide a double and triple check. The aim is to give DNR real time and highly accurate catch records to measure against what can be sustainably harvested.

"That is the key to more flexible management," Mr. Early says. Right now, written reports are filed monthly; and many, all sides agree, are inflated or falsified. Many such filers are crab license holders who fear DNR will cut them out of the fishery if they don't appear to be actively crabbing.

In response, DNR has managed crabs very conservatively, probably cutting off harvest before quotas are reached. "We think it could be millions of dollars a year in crabs watermen could have caught," says Matt Mullin of the national nonprofit, Environmental Defense Fund.

EDF, with broad experience in alternatives to traditional fisheries management, helped get the blue crab project going. Mr. Mullin lived with watermen on Smith Island when he was an educator there for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"The aim is to let us catch what the science says we can catch," says Jack Brooks, who runs the J.M. Clayton crab packing plant in Cambridge.

And with more — and more timely — assurance of what is going on, DNR believes it can make regulations simpler and more flexible.

No one thinks this will be easy. Paying for better catch reporting if the $600,000 pilot study scales up to include all crabbers is a concern. And decades of mistrust don't die easily: "going to put GPS in those smartphones you're giving us?" a team member asked, adding, "I represent some paranoid people."

Bottom line though is we really need to work this out or we don't have watermen much longer, simple as that.

Watermen aren't saints, but they've already paid a price for all of us botching restoration of the bay's water quality. Fairer ways of harvesting the bay's bounty are long overdue.

Tom Horton, a former longtime writer for The Sun, is the author of six books about the Chesapeake Bay. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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