Transcripts

On the Coast: Future of Maryland's Crabbing Industry

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Today, we're all about the Benjamins with a show focusing on the dollars and cents. Earlier on, we met a Maryland resident who's getting her foot in the entrepreneurial door at the tender age of 11. And later on, we'll pound the pavement with canvassers, trying to make a buck from passersby in the streets of D.C.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:30
But first, we turn to a group of guys trying to survive in what some worry is a dying industry. That's the topic of today's "On the Coast."

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:40
In which coastal reporter Bryan Russo gets us up to speed on what's happening on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and in coastal Delaware. Hey there, Bryan.

MR. BRYAN RUSSO

00:00:47
Hey, Rebecca, how are you?

SHEIR

00:00:49
Good, good. So, Bryan, who are these guys?

RUSSO

00:00:51
They're Maryland's watermen, the guys who spend the months, from April to December, out on the water fishing for crabs. Their story is really all about the Chesapeake Bay, but I actually want to start on the Eastern Shore in Grasonville. That's where a group of men known as the Blue Crab Design Team meet once a month, basically to come up with ideas to try and save their industry.

RUSSO

00:01:12
Not just for themselves, but for the next generation. This is Larry Simns, he's a member of the team and he's also the President of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

MR. LARRY SIMNS

00:01:20
We worry about not having young watermen getting into business. And I'd say, 10 years from now, if we make a part-time fisher out of it, which is leaning toward now, the young people won't have a chance. It's pretty simple. If you make a business profitable, you have young people get in it.

SHEIR

00:01:38
Okay, so how exactly then do you make the business profitable?

RUSSO

00:01:42
Well, the design team is focusing a lot on how the state regulates watermen. As you know, the Chesapeake Bay is not exactly the healthiest it's ever been. And the state restricts the number of crabs you can catch, particularly the number of female crabs. But the watermen argue these restrictions go too far. Here's Bob Evans, a watermen based in Anne Arundel County.

MR. BOB EVANS

00:02:00
A lot of the regulations that they have is over management, a mandatory day off a week that you cannot change during the year. You know, if a man wants to take Sundays off in the fall, he should be able to switch his day. If a man wants to switch areas or switch gears, he shouldn't have to jump through all the hoops from regulations that don't amount to anything.

RUSSO

00:02:28
Of course, critics of this view, including some environmentalists, say the regulations are the reason the bay's crab population is starting to rise again. And state officials say they're actively working with the watermen to strike a balance between protecting the ecosystem and protecting the watermen's ability to make a living. Steve Early is with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and he's also a liaison to the Blue Crab Design team.

MR. STEVE EARLY

00:02:49
Regulations have grown burdensome and we think there's a way to make it better. And the way to do that is to work actively with the watermen and engage them in a co-management process.

SHEIR

00:03:02
Okay. Well, just to circle back to something you just said, if the crab population is going up again, I'm thinking that's good news for the watermen, right? Doesn't that mean, more money for them?

RUSSO

00:03:13
Well, the watermen say they're having a particularly good season, but no one is getting rich crabbing. Bob Evans says he grosses about $800 a day on average. But once he's paid for gas, crew wages and other expenses, he's only taking home about $200 a day.

SHEIR

00:03:28
Well, are there other options out there then? So the watermen aren't relying just on crabs to pay the bills.

RUSSO

00:03:33
Definitely. And the watermen would prefer not to have to rely solely on crabbing. Many of the men I met fish for other species, like cat fish or rock fish, after the crab season ends in December. Here's waterman Bill Rice.

MR. BILL RICE

00:03:45
We fish for rock fish until May and then we fish for crabs from May until September. And what has happened now is, we're trying to save the crab fishery because that's the best fishery we've got going for us. But not only do we need to save the crab fishery, we have to have a better striped bass fishery, we have to have a better oyster fishery. I have some real good young watermen in my area that have to have on-land jobs that are still crabbing because they can't make a living six or seven months out of the year.

RUSSO

00:04:12
Some of the men I spoke with have been working on the water for more than 40 years and they remember a time when there were hundreds of working boats on the bay. Now the number of people making a living on the water is much, much smaller. And the members of the Blue Crab Design Team are hoping to get the public behind them, to save what remains of their industry. Mick Blackistone edits the Maryland Watermen's Gazette.

MR. MICK BLACKISTONE

00:04:32
It is a real challenge for us to gain supporters. It's an ironic situation that if you have a watermen's festival, thousands of people come out to meet the watermen, see the docking contests, eat the crabs, do all this and that. We need to convert them into really supporting the industry.

RUSSO

00:04:52
And basically, what they really want is to see regular consumers, especially people who really enjoy eating Maryland crabs, actually lobby the legislature to support their industry.

SHEIR

00:05:02
So I take it we'll be seeing some political debate around this issue once the legislative session gets rolling in January?

RUSSO

00:05:08
Well, by the end of 2011 or early 2012, the members of the Blue Crab Design Team plan to come up with a formal proposal for how they think their industry should be regulated. Once that's done, they'll send that proposal to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and that's when the real politicking on this issue will get started.

SHEIR

00:05:26
Well, Bryan, thanks so much for giving us this look at an industry and a way of life, really, that seems to be in the midst of some really big changes.

RUSSO

00:05:34
You're welcome, Rebecca, it's always my pleasure.

SHEIR

00:05:37
Bryan Russo is the coastal reporter for WAMU and the host of Coastal Connection on 88.3 in Ocean City, Md. For more on the Blue Crab Design Team, visit our website metroconnection.org. And while you're there you can check out a video of Captain Bob Evans and his crew as they go crabbing in the bay.
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