Maryland blue crab industry moves closer to federal relief

Local,Sara Michael
Maryland’s watermen inched even closer Wednesday to financial relief for the ailing blue crab industry.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., secured $75 million for fishery disaster assistance in the final spending package of the session, an announcement that comes on the heels of the federal disaster declaration this week for the Chesapeake Bay, clearing the path for the federal funding.

“This is about lives and livelihood in a struggling economy,” Mikulski, chairwoman of the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee, said in a statement.

Maryland officials sought the designation, which U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez granted Tuesday, in May to help bring about $20 million of federal funding to the area.

It’s unclear how much the Chesapeake Bay will receive, because the $75 million will be divided among other fishery disaster areas, such as the salmon industry in the Pacific Northwest.

The Commerce Department determines how much money Maryland gets, and Gov. Martin O’Malley then determines how the money is spent, said Mikulski’s spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz.

Maryland’s blue crab population has plummeted nearly 70 percent in 15 years, prompting Maryland and Virginia officials to order a 34 percent reduction in the harvest of female blue crabs. Maryland also plans to end the commercial female harvest Oct. 23, earlier than in past years, and put females off-limits completely to recreational crabbers.

The money will support alternative jobs for crabbers, such as rebuilding habitats and working on crab hatcheries.

Although the disaster declaration took longer than expected, the money will still come in time for winter work, said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association.

“It’s going to be a godsend for everybody,” he said, adding he expected Maryland to get its share.

“Any amount of money, along with state money, we are appreciative of,” he said, referring to $3 million in state capital funding to employ watermen in restoration and conservation jobs.

Not every waterman is as enthusiastic about the funding.

Gregory James, a crabber for many years who now runs Choptank River Seafood LLC in Sherwood, said it was “too little, too late,” adding that not every crabber will want those jobs.

He said the state restrictions unfairly regulate the business and are putting crabbers out business.

James commended Mikulski and Maryland leaders, but said, “When the smoke clears, it’s a little late.”
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