- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2004

GRASONVILLE, Md. — The steamed crabs on ice at Jerry Hunter’s Eastern Shore seafood market this time of year are fat, heavy — and hail from Louisiana.

The commercial crabbing season in Maryland is officially over on Dec. 15, but it essentially ended in late November with an early cold snap, crabbers and pickers say. The chill chased crabs into underwater dens, but watermen already were celebrating what turned out to be a fourth consecutive year of improved harvests.

Numbers released earlier this month by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) showed 2004 yielded the best blue-crab harvest from the Maryland end of the Chesapeake Bay since 1999.

As always, watermen, processors, industry officials and fishery managers have their theories on the mysteries of the Bay — what causes the upswings and downswings, and what next season will hold. Many are cautiously optimistic that the slowly increasing harvests are a sign that a long lull in hauls may be finished.

They also, in their superstitious way, can’t help but worry that their luck won’t hold.

“I just hope it’s the same or better next year,” Mr. Hunter said. “But I don’t want to push it. We’re lucky we had this year, I guess.”

Mr. Hunter, 61, dabbled in working the Bay waters as a young man, when the bounty of the Bay lived up to its reputation. Sixteen years ago, when his father died, he took over and expanded the family business of selling rockfish, oysters and crabs in a small market just off Highway 18 in Grasonville.

Although the natives love Chesapeake crabs the best, Mr. Hunter says, he is forced to import crabs from Louisiana to meet the summer demand. Customers’ first choices always are Bay-bred crabs, but they have grown accustomed to settling for the out-of-state substitutes.

Even with the uptick in this year’s harvest, Mr. Hunter and other market owners subsidized their stock with imports from Louisiana, the Carolinas and Virginia.

David Deighan, who manages the inventory for Fisherman’s Crab Deck and its next-door seafood market, shipped in 50 bushels a week from Louisiana for 15 weeks this summer. But the intake was far outweighed by the local haul — he bought 100 bushels a week for 20 weeks from watermen who work the nearby Chester and Wye rivers.

The local quality was good, he said. Big, weighty crabs flowed in early and kept coming, said Mr. Deighan, who has seen the Maryland harvest fall by half and then rise little by little since he started in the business a decade ago.

“We thought when they started shedding, they were so big, that sooner or later the big ones would all be caught and we’d only get small ones,” he said. “That didn’t happen.”

Crabs are harder to come by in a waterway now clouded by water pollution and lacking the oyster reefs and underwater grasses that once gave cover and food. Harvests began declining in the early 1990s and hit a low in 2000 of about 20 million pounds.

Early reports from active commercial watermen show they hauled in a catch of 27 million pounds to 29 million pounds in 2004, said Lynn Fegley, fisheries biologist and head of DNR’s blue crab program. Last year’s harvest, with the help of a late burst of crabs churned up by Hurricane Isabel, topped 25 million pounds.

“This year, we didn’t need a hurricane,” said Jack Brooks, a co-owner of the J.M. Clayton Co., a 114-year-old crab processing plant in Cambridge.

Watermen got an early spike from a run of soft-shell crabs in late May. “This year when things got started, they ramped up in a hurry. That was unusual,” Mr. Brooks said.

Everyone has a theory about why the blues were more plentiful this year. Miss Fegley credits “a good confluence of events,” which include a good influx of new crabs into the spawning stocks. She thinks the benefits of harvest restrictions may be kicking in — that cutting workdays in 2001 and limiting the size of crabs allowed for harvest bolstered the stocks of crabs.

She also credits a warmer spring. Last year’s spring was so frigid that it killed some crabs and kept others from becoming mobile. Early catches were so low that Maryland officials gave watermen one-time payments of $500 to help pay bills.

Those who make a living off Chesapeake crabs already are looking for clues about how lucky they will be next year. Some swear by how many tiny, new crabs are scraped up by oystermen’s tongs this time of year. A good showing of the babies, which are thrown back into the water, could mean they will reappear in abundance next spring. So far, the reports by oystermen are not encouraging.

But some, including Mr. Hunter, think the upcoming season could prove as fruitful as this year’s.

“We’ve had a lot of bad years in a row. So it’s time things turned around a little,” he said, while acknowledging: “Nobody really knows what crabs are going to do. They just have their opinions.”

A winter dredge survey, conducted by DNR, usually is the best indicator of how many crabs are in the Bay and how plentiful the harvest will be. It takes months to complete and generally is released in early spring.

For now, the industry and its customers can only wait — and settle for boxes of crabs driven by truck from the Gulf of Mexico.

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