A key Maryland advisory commission has weighed in against a bid by Eastern Shore crab processors to nearly double, effectively, the number of egg-bearing female crabs they could import from other states to pick for crabmeat.

The Tidal Fisheries Advisory Commission of the Department of Natural Resources voted 13 to1 against a proposal to expand the number of days the processors could import egg-bearing female, or sponge, crabs, from 72 days to 122 days. The lone vote in favor was Aubrey Vincent of Lindy’s Seafood Inc., a processing company in Woolford, near Cambridge.

Sponge crabs have long been illegal to harvest in Maryland. But they’re legal to harvest in other states, including Virginia – though that state does bar taking “dark” sponge crabs about to release their eggs.

While opposing an expansion of sponge crab imports, the DNR advisory panel did agree to recommend allowing processors some flexibility in the dates when the egg-bearing crustaceans could be shipped in from out of state.  The current window is April 25 to July 5; under the commission’s recommendation, processors would be able to adjust that by two weeks in either direction. That proposal passed unanimously. 

The tidal fisheries panel’s vote appears to end, at least for now, a years-long effort by processors to increase their supply of out-of-state sponge crabs to compensate for when the local catch of male and non-egg-bearing females falls off. 

Like many processors, Vincent’s company employs seasonal crabmeat pickers from Mexico who are allowed temporary entry to the United States on H2-B visas. The processors say they must request visas before they know how the year’s crab harvest is likely to go, and are required to pay the workers, whether there are crabs to pick or not.

The blue crab’s life cycle spans the Chesapeake and even extends into the Atlantic Ocean, which complicates management of the fishery. After mating, female crabs migrate down the Bay to spawn, or release their fertilized eggs. They form a sack, or sponge, outside their bodies, which contains hundreds of thousands to millions of eggs.
Maryland crab processors have been restricted since 2003 in their ability to import sponge crabs for their crabmeat. But the companies have been pressing for years to relax that limit.

They seemed to have succeeded at last in late September, when the DNR’s Blue Crab Industry Advisory Committee voted 12 to 2 to nearly double the period for permitting imports of out-of-state sponge crabs.  Watermen on that committee sympathized with the plight of processors like Vincent and Jack Brooks, of J.M. Clayton Co. in Cambridge. Brooks originally asked for no restrictions on sponge imports, but accepted the expanded 122-day window that the industry panel eventually recommended.

However, several key watermen missed that advisory committee meeting. And two watermen on the panel who voted in favor of the measure in September said Thursday that they regretted their earlier stance.

“Driving home from the meeting, I said, ‘My God, what have I done?’” said Richard Young, a Baltimore County crabber. “It was the wrong thing to do. I made a wrong vote. We need to keep the sponge crabs in the fishery. If processors would take them from Texas, or Florida, I don’t care. But not from Virginia. Not from our Bay. Please.”

Blair Baltus, president of the Baltimore County Watermen’s Association, said he shared Young’s regret.

“I can’t see putting any more pressure on those sponge crabs,” Baltus said. “We’ll be strained enough as it is next year.”

Baltus was referring to this year’s winter dredge survey results, which showed a record high number of female crabs but a 54 percent decrease in juvenile crabs, compared with the previous year. Scientists predicted a robust first half of the season and a dismal second, and crabbers say that has come to pass.

Watermen are concerned about a glut of sponge crabs on the market undercutting their prices – male hard crabs fetch about $110 a bushel dockside in early fall; females are closer to $40, and female sponge crabs are about $35 per bushel. But they are also worried about the future of their resource. Pulling off the sponge and discarding it compromises the future population at a time when the annual survey suggests it’s already in jeopardy.

“No waterman would vote in favor of this,” said Moochie Gilmer, a Queen Anne’s County waterman. He had been a vocal opponent of extending the import window, but missed the September vote.

It’s not clear how many crabs Maryland processors import from out of state in a given year. It’s tough, too, for Virginia to discern how much of their female blue crab harvest comes from sponge crabs, as there is no reporting requirement for them.  Most of the crabs caught in Virginia are females, but the state also has an 855-square-mile crab sanctuary that protects many of them.

Even so, Virginia officials have said much of the demand for sponges caught in their state comes from Maryland during the window when imports are allowed.

Vincent, of Lindy’s Seafood, told the crabbers that her company provides a market for crabbers in the fall, but to be able to buy their crabs then, she needs pickers for the whole season.

“Nobody wants to rape the Bay of all its female crabs, but the truth is, I am buying sponge crabs in Virginia. They will continue to harvest that crab,” Vincent said. “I’m in driving distance of people picking this crab, because they’re able to.”

After the Fourth of July, when the crab runs slow, she said, processors find themselves in a situation where “you’re dry, you have no picking crabs, but you have a house full of workers that I told the (U.S.) Department of Labor I would pay 35 hours a week.”

Gilmer responded: “You having too many pickers is a decision you have to make. You have to be more on the conservative side … I don’t think you can put the burden of that on the resource.”

Mike Luisi, DNR’s director of monitoring and assessment, said the department would formally propose the minor change in the import window recommended by the Tidal Fisheries panel, with the intent to make it effective by the next crab season, which begins April 1. He said fisheries managers would work with the processors, of which about 20 remain in Maryland, to agree on adjusted dates for the more flexible import window. There will likely be a public hearing on the matter in the spring.

Crabbers said they did not have a problem with allowing a two-week swing in the import window, since it did not increase the overall time for permitting sponge crab shipments to processors.

After the meeting, Young said he voted in favor of the original expansion out of deference for Brooks, and because he thought processors were seeking flexibility in the timing of sponge crab imports, not an expansion. The proposal had come toward the end of a long meeting, he said, and he and some other watermen realized, after discussions among themselves, that they had gotten confused.

“Really,” he said, “why in the world would we vote to cut our own throat?”