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Md. crabbers had best year since '99
Biologist credits harvest restrictions

By GRETCHEN PARKER / Associated Press

GRASONVILLE, Md. -- The steamed crabs on ice at Jerry Hunter's Eastern Shore seafood market this time of year are fat, heavy and hail from Louisiana.

The commercial crabbing season in Maryland, officially over last week, essentially ended in late November with an early cold snap, crabbers and pickers said. The chill chased crabs into underwater dens, but watermen already were celebrating what turned out to be a fourth consecutive year of improved harvests.

Numbers released last week by Maryland Department of Natural Resources showed 2004 yielded the best blue crab harvest from the Maryland end of the Chesapeake Bay since 1999.

As always, watermen, processors, industry officials and fishery managers have their theories on the mysteries of the bay - what causes the upswings and downswings, and what next season will hold. Many are cautiously optimistic that the slowly increasing harvests are a sign that a long lull in hauls may be over.

But they also, in their superstitious way, can't help but worry.

"I just hope it's the same or better next year," Hunter said. "But I don't want to push it. We're lucky we had this year, I guess."

A taste for local crabs

Although the natives love Chesapeake crabs the best, Hunter says he is forced to import crabs from Louisiana to meet demand. Customers' first choices always are bay-bred crabs, but they've grown accustomed to settling for the out-of-state substitutes.

Even with the uptick in this year's harvest, Hunter and other market owners subsidized their stock with imports from Louisiana, the Carolinas and Virginia.

David Deighan, who manages the inventory for Fisherman's Crab Deck and its next-door seafood market, shipped in 50 bushels a week from Louisiana for 15 weeks this summer. But the intake was far outweighed by the local haul - he bought a hundred bushels a week for 20 weeks from watermen who work the nearby Chester and Wye rivers.

And the local quality was good, he said. Big, weighty crabs flowed in early and kept coming, said Deighan, who has seen the Maryland harvest fall by half and then rise little by little since he started in the business a decade ago.

"We thought when they started shedding, they were so big, that sooner or later the big ones would all be caught and we'd only get small ones," he said. "That didn't happen."

Crabs are harder to come by in a bay now clouded by water pollution and lacking the oyster reefs and underwater grasses that once gave cover and food. Harvests began declining in the early 1990s and hit a low in 2000 of about 20 million pounds.

Early reports from active commercial watermen show they hauled in a catch of 27 million to 29 million pounds in 2004, said Lynn Fegley, fisheries biologist and head of DNR's blue crab program. Last year's harvest, with the help of a late burst of crabs churned up by Tropical Storm Isabel, topped 25 million pounds.

"This year, we didn't need a hurricane," said Jack Brooks, a co-owner of the J.M. Clayton Company, a 114-year-old crab processing plant in Cambridge.

Soft-shell spike

Watermen got an early spike from a run of soft-shell crabs in late May. "This year, when things got started they ramped up in a hurry. That was unusual," Brooks said.

Everyone has a theory about why the blues were more plentiful this year. Fegley credits "a good confluence of events," which include a good influx of crabs into the spawning stocks. She believes the benefits of harvest restrictions may be kicking in - that cutting workdays in 2001 and limiting the size of crabs allowed for harvest bolstered the stocks of crabs.

She also credits a warmer spring. Last year's spring was so frigid that it killed some crabs and kept others from moving around. Early catches were so low that Maryland officials gave watermen one-time payments of $500 to help pay bills.

Those who make a living off Chesapeake crabs already are looking for clues about how lucky they'll be next year. Some swear by how many tiny new crabs are scraped up by oystermen's tongs this time of year. A good showing of the babies, which get thrown back into the water, could mean they'll reappear in abundance next spring. So far, the reports are not encouraging.

But some believe the upcoming season could be as fruitful as this year's.

"We've had a lot of bad years in a row. So it's time things turned around a little," Hunter said, while acknowledging: "Nobody really knows what crabs are going to do. They just have their opinions."
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