Recreational crabbers heading for the Chesapeake next week to fill the pot for an Independence Day cookout should be prepared for disappointment. Crabbing ought to be good now as water temperatures rise into the mid-seventies and big jimmies and sooks head for the shallows to feed. It feels likes prime crab time, but nooooooo.

"It was apparent from our midwinter dredge surveys that the early season would be slow," said Phil Jones, who monitors crabs in Maryland's usually rich waters. "We found relatively few large crabs buried. The numbers of smaller ones looked about average, but they won't reach market [keeper] size until late July or August."

From the experts' perspective, it promises to be another poor season like last year, which was down significantly from the 10-year average. Resource managers judge crab abundance by commercial catch, which was 26 million pounds in the bay in 1998, down from the average 40 million.

Crab populations always have fluctuated but back-to-back bad years don't bode well for the future and resource agencies are not hiding their concern. The bi-state Chesapeake Bay Commission recently ordered scientists from Virginia and Maryland out on a two-year mission to see whether the commercial and recreational catch is now so high that the tasty critters are in danger.

Jones said crabs in the Bay already are "fully exploited," with about 60 percent of market-size ones caught every year. That means, he said, "We're taking as many crabs from the population as it can withstand."

Likewise in Virginia, Jack Travelstead of the Marine Resources Commission says, "We're at a point where we have serious concerns. The data says we're fully exploited, which means we're not overfishing yet, but we could be if we added any more pressure."

"We all agree we're at the ceiling," says Dave Blazer, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. "We look at the harvest and at the [population] indexes and say, `Whoops, maybe we've got a problem.' "

To anyone who wanders the Chesapeake, the pressure on crabs in the summer is obvious. In Maryland, commercial trotliners cram creeks and tidal rivers, arriving hours before dawn at some spots to set their lines in prime "lays" before someone else gets there. In the open Bay, crab pot floats clutter the channel edges and the mouths of rivers and inlets. On weekends, recreational trotliners, chicken-neckers and collapsible-pot users crowd the water.

"The pressure has been going up since 1990," Jones said. "There are more people crabbing than there used to be, baywide."

How are they faring? "Mostly," Travelstead said, "they're telling us that crabbing is pretty poor. Nobody's getting a good catch right now."

Blazer used to be a recreational weekend chicken-necker but has all but given up. "The last time I went was two years ago. I was going to take the kids last year but I got turned off by the reports," he said. "We've been going fishing instead."

That sounds like a good plan. My crabbing partner, Gene Miller, and I hauled our trotline from the deep-freeze last week and set it out along the channel leading out of our home creek, always a fine place to catch hard crabs. But after three runs we had caught exactly zero. We didn't even see any drop off before they got to the surface. Not a one.

We picked up, moved across the Severn River to an isolated creek I've always liked the looks of, set the line in pristine, clear water and caught a grand total of two, both undersized. "That's enough," Gene said. "Let's go home."

He called a friend, Rob Schultz, who runs a 5,000-foot commercial trotline on the Eastern Shore in the summer after business drops off at the ski shop he runs all winter. Schultz said he has been doing a little better than we did, but not much. He also said we had done just about everything wrong.

When Miller told him we had seen schools of mating skates flapping their huge bat wings around the creek mouth where we crab, he said he wouldn't have even bothered to set there. "Skates eat crabs," he said. Moreover, our choice to use leftover bull-lip baits from last year was poor. Crabs are finicky eaters in the spring, he said, and won't mess with rubbery bull lips. They demand chicken necks or salted eel, which are tastier. Bull lips are for the fall, when crabs eat anything.

Still, you'd think we'd have caught one measly keeper!

We dropped the trotline back in the freezer where it may well stay until late July, when the young ones reach eating size.

The good news is, at least the resource agencies are sounding an alarm. Blazer of the Chesapeake Bay Commission said researchers up and down the Bay are gathering data with the hope of establishing a baywide crab management strategy over the next two years. They started work last month and should have some initial findings next month.

"The aim is to establish a management strategy so we can assure a sustainable fishery," he said. "We're hoping to have enough information by September-October to set up discussions over the winter."

But, he warned, "Fisheries management isn't rocket science -- it's harder. There are so many variables, it's hard to know what you have."

Said Blazer, "The concept now is, we need to come down [in catch]. But how far do we have to come so we don't create economic hardships?"

Meantime, the economics of crabbing aggravate the crisis. Crabs are like any other highly prized seafood -- as abundance drops, the price goes up; the fewer there are, the harder people try to catch them.

Solutions seem obvious but they aren't pleasant: Sharp restrictions on the number of commercial crab pots and trotlines, strict quotas on commercial and recreational catches, limits on the number of people crabbing, higher license fees, a moratorium on new commercial licenses. All these measures come at a political price. Will they come soon enough to save the crabs?

Time will tell. Meantime, if you're planning a crab feast for Independence Day, be forewarned: You'll probably have to fill your bushel at the seafood store, and it won't be cheap.

CAPTION: Gene Miller displays an undersized crab caught by trotline on Severn River. Commercial and recreational catches have led to a dearth of keeper crabs.