Maryland Watermen Angered By Federal Crabbing Bailout

By Anath Hartmann
Capital News Service
Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2008

WASHINGTON - Tuesday's federal disaster declaration for the Chesapeake Bay blue crab fishery may make the region's watermen eligible for emergency funding, but seafood wholesaler Bob Evans said it won't help him.

"This is all just a bunch of environmentalists not wanting the watermen to crab the bay," said Evans, owner of Crisfield wholesaler and supplier H. Glenwood Evans & Sons Inc. "I'm going to lose a lot of money, and nobody's going to reimburse me (for all of it). They're trying to shove us out of business."

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who asked the Commerce Department in May for the disaster declaration, and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, both Maryland Democrats, lauded the news.

But Maryland watermen like Evans reacted angrily Wednesday to news of a bailout plan, which would set aside about $15 million for the Virginia and Maryland crabbing industries over the next three years if a disaster assistance bill is signed into law. The money would be used to employ watermen, many of whom are going out of business, in habitat-restoration efforts.

The watermen said the Chesapeake Bay crabbing industry needs a return to its regular-length crab-harvesting season, not an infusion of money. The state this year cut the commercial crabbing season in the bay by nearly two months and imposed bushel limits in an effort to reduce the female blue crab harvest.

"They're knocking six weeks out of my revenue and four of those six weeks are top harvesting weeks," Evans said. "They should give us those weeks back instead of money."

Chesapeake Bay blue crab populations have declined about 70 percent since the early 1990s due to water pollution and over-harvesting, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

David Colman, of Cambridge seafood wholesaler Colman and Sons Seafood Inc., called the concern about low blue crab numbers "overblown" and said the species population would eventually climb on its own.

"It's like flies. Some years there's a lot of flies, some years there isn't," Colman said. "It's overblown. It's ridiculous."

Though the federal money has not yet been secured, there is $3 million in state funds set aside to employ crabbers in bay restoration beginning late next month, said a Natural Resources Department spokeswoman.

"This is something we've already started working on," said spokeswoman Olivia Campbell. "They'll be doing oyster bar rehabilitation, pilot aquaculture projects (and) wetlands restoration. . . . It would provide them with training and skills to help them not only until the fishery rebounds, but afterward, too."

Campbell said the state had not yet determined how much it would pay watermen for these services or how many of them would be employed to do them.

Lou Goodwin, owner of Jessup wholesaler E. Goodwin and Sons Inc., said crabbers would not be interested in doing bay restoration. He called the effort a "handout."

"The watermen don't want welfare, they don't want a handout -- they just want to be watermen," said Goodwin, who said he has begun buying and selling crab from other East Coast states to combat Maryland's Chesapeake Bay commercial bushel limits. "It would be like me or some other waterman tomorrow becoming a computer engineer. That's not happening."

Goodwin said the federal government wouldn't have seen a need for the emergency bailout had they taken care of pollution in the bay long ago.

"They complain about the watermen, what they take from the water, but (pollution comes from) what the general population has been putting in the water, not what the watermen have been taking out," Goodwin said. "So they should quit blaming us."

In the past few years Maryland has spent billions of dollars to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution in the Bay, byproducts of agricultural activities and wastewater management facilities. Nutrient- and sediment-dumping stimulate the growth of algae, which removes oxygen from the water and kills fish.

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