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Federal disaster aid available for watermen

Funds will provide work opportunities, restore crab stocks

By JACK SHAUM Staff Writer

Published: Thursday, February 5, 2009 6:43 AM CST

WASHINGTON The federal government has released $10 million in federal disaster relief funds designed to help Maryland watermen deal with a decline in crab harvests, Maryland's two United States senators have announced.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently approved Maryland's relief plan and released the funds, making the money immediately available through the Department of Commerce, said Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, both D-Md.

The crab fishery in Maryland and Virginia has been affected by over harvesting and pollution. Both states reduced the female crab harvest last year and shortened the 2008 crabbing season. The governors of the two states sought the disaster declaration because of the problems facing the crabbing industry. The Department of Commerce approved the $10 million in November and the states were required to submit plans on how the money would be used. NOAA approved Maryland's plan late last month.

"Now these funds will help soften the blow of years of shrinking crab harvests and provide opportunities to the watermen who have been affected by it," Mikulski said in a statement.

"This emergency funding will help ensure the survival of Maryland's crabbing industry and will lead to improved management to help rejuvenate the blue crab population," Cardin said in the statement.

According to the two senators, the federal funds will be used for programs designed to provide watermen with work opportunities, and programs aimed at restoring crab stocks through aquaculture, habitat restoration, and monitoring and research. They also said the funding would be used to restructure the crab fishery and improve its management.

"It's going to help some because they got devastated last fall," said Larry Simns, president of the Chester-based Maryland Watermen's Association in an interview. "Between seasons, it'll help fill some of the gaps for them."

He said the money will likely be used to give watermen off-season work such as cleaning oyster bars, retrieving unused crab pots from area waters, and other jobs on land.

Simns cautioned, however, that the $10 million can only do so much.

"That's $10 million over three years and there are 6,000 watermen. It don't really go far. It gives them about 10 days of work," he said.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources announced proposed crabbing regulations for 2009 on Dec. 15. They call for the commercial season for harvesting mature females to be closed from June 1 through June 15, Sept. 26 through Oct. 4, and Nov. 11 to Dec. 15. The season normally runs from April 1 through Dec. 15 without interruption.

Once DNR has the results of the winter crab dredge in April, it will announce daily catch limits for females.

The department also wants to temporarily freeze unused crabbing licenses. It further proposes that recreational crabbers register with DNR.

"It looks a lot better than it did last year," Simns said of the package of proposed 2009 regulations. 'We worked with them on this."

The goal in 2008 and 2009, DNR said, is to reduce the harvest of females by 34 percent and insure that no more than 46 percent ofthe crab population is harvested annually.
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