- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

CRISFIELD, Md. — Even in a town symbolized by the crab, where the crustacean hovers overhead in a portrait on the water tower, Maryland’s favorite seafood is harder and harder to come by.

James Dodson, owner of the waterfront Original Captain’s Galley restaurant, this year closed his crab-picking house. For 53 years, women gathered at the plant to harvest meat from hundreds of bushels of Maryland blue crabs a day.

This year it wasn’t worth Mr. Dodson’s time.

“There is just a scarcity of crabs. It’s hard to get domestic crabmeat now,” said Mr. Dodson, who imports 75 percent of his blue crabs from North Carolina. “Whether it’s weather or overfishing or the regulations, it’s a combination of everything.”

Owners of several crab houses here in Somerset County and in Baltimore said they are shipping in more crabs from out of state than ever. They have to, they said, to meet the demand of restaurants and retail customers.

“We’ve had one of the worst years I’ve had in 33 years,” said Harvey Linton, owner of Linton’s Seafood in Crisfield.

Mr. Linton has scrambled this year to find crabs. Last year he bought from a half-dozen dealers here and in North Carolina; this year he is buying from 15 dealers in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Louisiana.

According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) preliminary statistics, the state’s blue-crab harvest in May was down about 40 percent from the average since 1996.

Commercial crabbers caught about 23,000 bushels of crabs in May. The average is about 38,750 bushels, said Phil Jones, DNR director of resource management. The outlook for June’s numbers is slightly better, he said.

The dearth of crabs quickly translates into higher prices for customers.

“People are looking at us like, ‘Are you dumb?’ for putting such an expensive price on them,” said Bob Shorb, 25-year manager of Sea Pride Crab House in Baltimore. He called prices for crabs this year “ridiculous.”

This year Mr. Linton charges $125 for a bushel of “Number Ones” — the largest hard-shell male crabs. Last year the same bushel went for $90. A bushel of the smaller males costs $90, up from $60 last year.

“The prices right now for the crabs I’m paying for — to the crabbers and the dealers — is about 30 percent higher,” Mr. Linton said. “This time of year, prices should be down, and they’re still up.”

Even in July, usually a peak month for crab harvesting, quantity and quality are down, crab-house owners said.

No one can agree on what’s causing the downslide. Crabbers blame farmers for putting too much nutrient runoff into Chesapeake Bay. Farmers blame watermen for overharvesting.

“You can ask 20 different people. They’ll have 20 different opinions,” said Bill Cox of Fresh Catch in Crisfield. “But it’s overfishing if you ask me.”

This year several crab-house owners also are blaming the record-setting wet, cold spring. Rainfall dumping into the Bay causes saltwater crabs to burrow deeper as they look for higher salinity, said Bob Evans, owner of H. Glenwood Evans & Sons Inc. Seafood.

“Normally in the summer, crabs are in shallower water” and are easier to catch, Mr. Evans said. “I just think they’ve gone off in deeper water.”

“We’re talking about a saltwater crab,” Mr. Linton said. “You take and dump all that freshwater in there, the freshwater will kill him.”

The closing of Mr. Dodson’s picking house, Byrd’s Seafood, is getting less attention this year than the rising cost of fresh crabs. Last year, Byrd’s picked only 70 bushels of crabs a day, barely enough to justify the cost of hiring people to do the work, he said.

He said the closing of Byrd’s is a harbinger.

Only two picking houses remain in Crisfield, down from about 40 in the mid-1950s, he said.

And neither of those has opened yet for the season, Mr. Linton said.

“Usually by the first week of July they’re going strong,” Mr. Linton said. “But nobody in this area has even started picking crabs this year, because the price of them is too high.”

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