- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 1, 2004

Shoppers at the Washington Fish Market on Maine Avenue will be happy to find a ready supply of local blue crabs at the lowest prices since 1999.

More crabs and cheaper prices mean more customers.

“We definitely like them cheaper,” said Ryan Evans, manager at Jessie Taylor Seafood. “It keeps more people coming down and we have to hear less complaining [about prices].”

Captain White’s Seafood City, also on Maine Avenue, usually imports crabs from the Carolinas during the summer because local crabs are so expensive. This year is different.

“We’ve had local crabs all year round so far,” said manager Mark White.

Local restaurants also are experiencing better sales than last year.

Buddy’s Crabs and Ribs in Laurel has sold more crabs this year than in the past, said Indie Smith, a hostess at Buddy’s. The all-you-can-eat crab feast costs about $20, depending on the day of the week.

Captain Jerry’s, also in Laurel, also is seeing increased sales, said server Mia Nam. Its all-you-can-eat feast costs about $20, but varies with crab availability.

The better sales and lower prices are the result of an increase in this season’s crab harvest. Last year, a bushel of blue crabs would cost about $140; they’re now going for about $80.

There is no specific reason for the increase, said Howard King, director of the Maryland Fishery Service. Expectations for the crab season are based on winter sampling in deeper areas of the Bay. This year’s sampling showed little increase from last year, but the catch is almost twice as large. In June 2003, 2.4 million pounds of crabs were harvested, and this June brought in 4.2 million.

“We have gotten out of the crab-predicting business because it is so unpredictable,” Mr. King said.

An increase in crab supply means lower pay per bushel for Maryland watermen, who depend on good prices for their livelihood. Last year they received about $120 per bushel, but prices have dropped to about $60 per bushel this year.

But because the increased supply also means more crabs are being sold, no one is complaining.

“If you’re only catching a bushel a day, it don’t matter what you get for it; you can’t make a living off it. So it’s better to have more crabs,” said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Waterman’s Association.

Whether the supply will last through the end of crab season is still to be determined. Rain drives the crabs farther into the Bay, where it is more difficult for watermen to bring them in.

Also at issue is a condition known as “dead water.” Dead waters lack the oxygen crabs need to survive, thus decreasing the population of available crabs. Despite indications of dead water early in the season, it has yet to become a problem, Mr. King said.

Although not conclusive, last season’s heavy rains and cool temperatures — the wettest and coolest since 1963 — might have contributed to this year’s large crab population. Cloud cover and extensive rain could have resulted in more oxygen and less dead water, resulting in better crab growth conditions, Mr. King said.

If history repeats itself, next year will continue the pattern of an increasing catch, someday returning the crab population to the abundance of the 1970s and ‘80s. Although it is impossible to tell, Mr. King is optimistic that Fishery Service efforts, such as season and crab size restrictions, to increase the population will be successful.

The Fishery Service, part of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, restricts the catch to two bushels of hard crabs and two dozen soft crabs or peelers for licensed boats with two or more licensed watermen on board.

For those reselling the crabs, restrictions that improve quality and quantity are a good thing.

“It causes [prices] to be a little higher,” said Mr. Evans of Jessie Taylor Seafood, “but if they can keep all the crabs they caught, we wouldn’t be in business because there wouldn’t be any more crabs.”

The Fishery Service is optimistic that its restrictions will pay off.

“We can’t predict, but our management measures are designed to increase the abundance of crabs each year,” Mr. King said. We’re hopeful that the … crabs are becoming more abundant again.”

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