Written by Jen Finn
Bastion on the bay
Maryland's Smith Island is a historical haven for Chesapeake Bay watermen
By Charlie Petrocci
Unpredictable. That's the only way to describe crabbing on the Chesapeake Bay. Like the tides that sustain them, annual crabbing harvests have been undulating in numbers since records have been kept.
Eddie Evans Jr. is one of a dedicated group of watermen who still call Smith Island, Md., home and depend on the seasonal crab industry. "This is really all we got here. Some boys do a little gillnetting or oystering in the winter months, but it's crabs that keep us alive," says Evans. Like most watermen who fish the Chesapeake, he knows regulations are what may help the industry survive.
Responding to slow recruitment of surviving female crabs, Maryland — in an unprecedented collaboration with Virginia — set new harvest regulations for female blue crabs in 2008. And it may have worked, because the summer harvest of 2010 was one of the best on record, eventually causing prices of crab to drop because of a glut in the market.
Recently, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley announced the 2008 regulations are now paying off, with the bay crab population believed to be the highest since 1997. "Our ultimate goal is a self-sustaining fishery that will support our industry over the long term." But this year's winter freeze took its toll, with the loss of many female crabs reported as a result of the cold.
Though the numbers look good so far for a good year, many Smith Island watermen know you can't count crabs until they're in the basket. "Regulating commercial fisheries in the bay is by no means easy," says Gibby Dean, president of the new, growing Chesapeake Bay Commercial Fishermen's Association. "The crabbing issues of the upper bay do not necessarily reflect the issues that affect the Smith Island area of the bay. Smith Island is remote, and we want to make sure those watermen know what's going on with any new regulations that can impact their livelihoods."
Everyone — including watermen, scientists, and even restaurant owners — knows regulations are needed in one form or another. It's just that everyone also has his own opinion on which management method to implement, and that makes for a strange brew. Many Chesapeake watermen question the validity of state employees counting crabs. As one opinionated seafood operator put it, "They don't even know how many illegal aliens are in the state, so how the hell do they know how many crabs are in the bay?" But Smith Island watermen are used to juggling numbers — fishing season dates, sizes of crabs, bushel amounts and how many new, younger watermen will fill in behind them. And if things don't get better, many say their number may be up.
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