- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2006

VIRGINIA BEACH (AP) — An unusual abundance of crabs early in the season has flooded the Virginia seafood industry with more crabs than it can handle, dropping prices paid to boats to all-time lows and sending watermen ashore to avoid spending more money than they earn.

“I didn’t make any money today,” Mark Sanford said Thursday after pulling his boat into Spots Fish Co. and calculating his costs for fuel, bait, gear, insurance and his two-man crew. “Everything is going up. Everything but the price of crabs.”

April harvests typically fall below the catches in June and July. The season began April 1.

The reasons for the early surge this year are debatable.

Watermen credit the warm winter weather for keeping crabs swimming in the Chesapeake Bay rather than burying themselves in the bottom as they would to combat the cold.

But a recently released study of the crab population in early 2005 showed a steep increase in the number of juvenile crabs, which would have grown to harvest size by this spring.

Some crabbers want state regulators to lower the current daily catch limit from 51 bushels to 25 bushels.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission could consider such a proposal when it meets Tuesday, said Rob O’Reilly, the commission’s deputy chief of the fisheries management division.

After almost a decade of crab harvest declines, most Virginia picking houses have closed, leaving just a few to handle the current onslaught of crabs. Those remaining processors don’t have enough staff to pick all that’s coming in.

Graham & Rollins Inc., the largest crab house in the state, has only about 20 pickers working at its plant on the Hampton waterfront, with more to arrive from Mexico next month.

Johnny Graham, the company’s vice president, didn’t expect to need more pickers until later this season.

“Never seen it before,” he said of the early harvest.

His family has operated the business for more than 60 years.

It’s the same for the dealers who buy whole crabs and ship most up the coast to Baltimore, the District and New York, where crabs sell for more money.

Those markets are saturated at a time well before diners have much of an appetite for crabs, which is seen more as a summer food.

“It’s crazy because you can’t give them away, there’s so many of them,” said Scott “Spot” MacDonald, who owns Spots Fish Co. “People just aren’t buying.”

He is paying Mr. Sanford and other crabbers $10 per bushel, down from about $30 at the start of the season, and some boats are getting no more than $8.

Consumers have yet to benefit from the low prices.

Restaurants and retail stores won’t offer specials before customers are ready to buy crabs or crabmeat. And with inexpensive pasteurized product available year-round from foreign processors, few restaurant owners and large supermarket chains bother switching to domestic crabmeat when it suddenly drops in price.

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