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Maryland Abandons Auction to Buy Crabbers' Licenses as Watermen Refuse to Sell

Brian Bowen hasn't crabbed regularly in 12 years but says he won't sell his license. "You've always got to remember where you came from," he says.
Brian Bowen hasn't crabbed regularly in 12 years but says he won't sell his license. "You've always got to remember where you came from," he says. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 24, 2009

The Chesapeake Bay, raked by storms and swimming with things that pinch and sting, has always been brutal on wooden boats, old lighthouses and ungloved fingers.

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Turns out it's equally treacherous for economists.

Maryland officials enlisted the help of PhDs this summer, trying to use modern economic theory to solve a problem that has been brewing for 40 years. There are too few blue crabs in the bay and too many watermen licensed to catch them.

The economists' solution: a "reverse auction." The state would buy some licenses back, and each crabber could name his price.

It didn't work. Last week, the state gave up on the auction, saying the bids were too few and too high.

State officials found that modern economics still has a lot to learn about the value of a $50-per-year crab license, at least in the Chesapeake. Many license-holders haven't caught a crab in years but treat their cards as an unsellable proof of identity, a last physical connection to a life they love but can't live.

"This is something that I've had a hard time facing, letting go of what I think I should be," said Brian Bowen, 31, the son of a Calvert County waterman. Bowen works for a mechanical and plumbing contractor in the Washington suburbs and hasn't crabbed regularly in 12 years.

At first, he thought about selling his license for $5,000 or $6,000.

Then he decided he wouldn't sell at any price.

"You've always got to remember where you came from. And it's very important to me to have the card here, just so I can explain to my nephew, 'This is how your grandfather made his living,' " Bowen said. He said he also felt that selling his license would be an admission that the bay's problems are the watermen's fault.

The idea for an auction came up as Maryland officials struggled with one of the bay's toughest moral questions: how to help crabs and crabbers at the same time. Both are Chesapeake icons. Both have suffered as cities, suburbs and farms have choked the bay with pollution.

But one survives by catching the other and selling it to be eaten. So, as economists say, their interests are not always aligned.

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