The following editorial appeared Wednesday in The (Hilton Head) Island Packet:
South Carolina needs to better regulate the harvest of blue crabs.
This season shows major weaknesses in the state’s ability to preserve one of its most popular natural resources. So far this season, the number of crabs seems to be continuing a long-running downward trend. But the price they can fetch is so high that many commercial crab traps are in the waterways in some areas.
This convergence has shown once again that South Carolina has lax oversight of the commercial crabbing industry.
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The state Department of Natural Resources has no legal authority to limit the crab harvest, commercial crabbing licenses, the number of crab traps in the water, or for the most part restrict where crab traps can be located.
By contrast, the states of Virginia and Maryland have announced lower limits on the harvest of female crabs this season. It is seen as one of the few tools it can use in seeking a stable resource, which is declining in the Chesapeake Bay area and other areas.
The new harvest limit is not a silver bullet. After all, this tactic has been used repeatedly to restore a resource that remains in decline.
But South Carolina does not even have that option. Neither can it restrict licenses sold to out-of-state crabbers, a tactic many states use to prevent over-fishing.
DNR can do only what the state legislature gives it the authority to do, even though the department is overseen by its own commission and has a number of advisory committees.
We suggest the biologists and other DNR scientists who monitor the blue crab harvest be granted a direct way to implement regulations that would protect the natural resource.
What happens to the crabs in our creeks should be a scientific decision, not a political one.
South Carolina has been fiddling with this issue since at least the late 1990s, when a prolonged drought started a decline in the crab catch. But still nothing significant has been done to get a better handle on crabbing.
In 2002, DNR staff, several citizens’ boards and committees and the DNR board studied the situation and concluded there were too many crab traps in the water.
It was suggested that the number of commercial crabbing licenses be frozen and the number of crab traps per crabber be capped. Rules would have been developed for the sale of existing licenses. The target was a 25 percent reduction in the number of crab pots fished.
It went nowhere in the legislature, even though commercial crabbers begged for some help against out-of-state crabbers rushing to South Carolina’s free waterways.
In 2009, the proposed Blue Crab Fisheries Stabilization Act also died. It was vetted in multiple public hearings, and had a lot of input from the crabbing industry, before being proposed to the legislature. But it also went nowhere.
South Carolina law contains a number of crabbing restrictions, both for recreational and commercial licenses. But when it comes to real control of this most valuable and popular natural resource, South Carolina’s lax attitude stands alone on the East Coast. It is past time for that to change.