- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Heavy rains and a cool summer, on top of a declining blue-crab harvest, hurt demand this season for the regional delicacy, several area seafood restaurants say.

Potowmack Landing, an Alexandria restaurant on the Potomac River, has seen a waning demand for hard-shelled crabs served on the deck, said one manager.

“Our Maryland-style jumbo, lump crab-cake sales have been booming, but the hard-shelled crabs’ demand and quantity has just dropped,” said the manager, who asked not to be named.

Part of the reason was the almost nonstop rain in May and unseasonably chilly weather that discouraged customers from venturing to the restaurant’s outdoor deck to crack open a bucket of crabs, the manager said.

At Bethesda Crab House, owner Henry Vechery said the restaurant has had some off-days during this year’s crab season, which runs from March until November.

“Sure, we’ve had a couple of days where the demand was down, but once the weather got nicer, more people were coming in for them,” Mr. Vechery said.

The Bethesda restaurant sold thousands of crabs during the lunch hour yesterday. Mr. Vechery buys from suppliers in Louisiana, Texas and off the Chesapeake Bay.

Steve Jones has been selling only about 20,000 pounds of Maryland blue crabs a week at his Silver Spring location of Seafood in the Buff, a seasonal crab shop that sells crabs by the bushel.

He was selling some 70,000 pounds a week last summer.

“This year has been off from others, productionwise,” Mr. Jones said yesterday afternoon as 12 persons milled around wooden bushels holding snapping crabs.

Commercial crab harvests in Maryland have fallen from 55 million pounds in 1993 to a low of 20 million pounds in 2000. Last year, the crab harvest rose slightly to 25 million pounds, but was still well below the long-term average.

From preliminary statistics at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the state’s blue-crab harvest in May was down 41 percent to 23,000 bushels from the average 38,750 bushels, Phil Jones, resource-management director, told the Associated Press.

The nonstop rain in May and stormy days during the summer also have discouraged some customers from trekking to Seafood in the Buff’s trailer stand off Route 29 in the White Oak section of Silver Spring, but Mr. Jones said business had been building up to the Labor Day holiday.

“We’re still doing fairly well, considering the lower production,” he said, declining to disclose sales numbers.

Consumers don’t seem to mind spending $70 for a bushel of crabs.

Rockville resident Shira Holmes drives 20 miles every week for Mr. Jones’ crabs, buying about a bushel per visit.

“The prices are reasonable, but I can tell that the crabs are getting smaller. But I still eat them all year-round,” Ms. Holmes said.

Pat Roselle, a Baltimore resident who buys crabs frequently, said she has noticed a smaller harvest this summer.

“I just got some soft-shelled crabs at [Baltimore seafood retailer] Frank’s Seafood and I came here for some hard-shelled crabs. I’ve noticed in both places, the crabs getting smaller, but it doesn’t stop me from buying them,” she said.

Maryland legislators in April reduced the minimum size requirements, part of a crab population-enhancement initiative, from 5.25 inches to 5 inches.

While the harvest is smaller than usual, Mr. Jones noted that larger hard-shelled crabs tend to be more plentiful by September, after the male crabs have finished their mating season.

“It’s a shame that a lot of people miss out on the best time for high-quality crabs because they see them as a summer food,” he said.

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