National Fisherman

If there's one thing nearly everybody in the Chesapeake Bay region can agree upon, it's that summer isn't summer without blue crabs. Unfortunately, this regional staple has experienced its share of problems over the past few years, impacting supply, prices and the livelihoods of all those who work in the crabbing industry. Thankfully, recent leadership from Maryland watermen has put this fishery on a course to produce more crabs and more profits.

For more than two years, Maryland watermen and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), with support from the Environmental Defense Fund, have been working on techniques to improve crab harvest accuracy and reliability. Watermen have long contended that the regulatory system for the commercial blue crab harvest was too burdensome and unpredictable. Fisheries managers were not able to determine how many crabs were being harvested at any given time. As a result, catch restrictions were put in place to overcompensate for uncertainty in order to ensure the population wouldn't become overfished.

Industry leaders and fisheries managers have agreed to prioritize improved data collection; if you don't know how many crabs are being caught each year, you can't possibly know how close you are to harvest targets. Without this information, fishery managers are essentially guessing at the best ways to keep crab harvests sustainable from year to year via harvest restrictions on crabbers. These restrictions make crabbers inherently less efficient, negatively impacting a crabber's ability to make a living.

o remedy this, last year Maryland's Blue Crab Design Team — a commercial blue crab industry group, in partnership with DNR and the Environmental Defense Fund — launched an electronic harvest monitoring program in which crabbers would voluntarily report how many crabs they landed each day, updating their catch in real time using on-board mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones. This system, part of a pilot program now in its second year, replaced the monthly, paper reporting system for participants. The antiquated paper system is time-consuming, inefficient and limits DNR's ability to make in-season harvest adjustments even when commercial harvests are below established targets.

The pilot program was so successful that 135 watermen are now participating, up from 49 last year, with even more watermen awaiting training on the system. DNR plans to take the program fleetwide by 2015. The hope is that once the state can track landings with greater certainty, it will be able to ease the regulations watermen find so challenging, such as limits on when or how long they can work. Already, DNR has begun to ease up slightly, allowing watermen participating in the 2013 expanded pilot to choose their day off each week without committing to a fixed schedule in advance, which gives them the flexibility to spend time with their families as needed, sit out poor weather days or keep the boat at the dock for needed repairs without cutting short a work week and sacrificing income.

Read the full story at the Baltimore Sun>>

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