April 1 is the official start to the blue crab harvest in Maryland. But don't reach for your mallet just yet.
"It's not time for crabs," said Jessica Borowski, a manager at Midtown BBQ and Brew. "It's too cold out."
The crabs seem to agree. The Chesapeake Bay's water temperature hasn't risen enough for the crabs to become active — and catchable.
Consumers set on Maryland crabs will see limited availability for now — and prices to match.
Prices for Chesapeake Bay crabs are typically high at the start of the season, and people who want them in April will have to pay even more than usual. But many consumers are just as happy eating hard-shell crabs from the Gulf Coast — where many local crab houses get their supplies throughout the year — and won't see a price fluctuation.
For now, from Turkey Point to Tangier Sound, the beautiful swimmer, Callinectes sapidus, isn't swimming. Instead of moving to shallower waters where crabbers can catch them, they're staying warm deep in their muddy homes. This year temperatures in the bay for late March were slightly below the historic average for the month — but not dramatically so. It only seems that way compared to last year, when average March water temperatures were unusually high.
"I think we can expect a slow start," to the season, said Brenda Davis, blue crab program manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Fisheries Division. "The cold temperatures are likely to keep early catches low. Until the water warms up, crabs are not very catchable."
Glen Frost, who works with watermen for his Maryland Crabs Delivered service, agreed with that prediction. "Last year on opening day we had 50 bushels of crabs," he said. "This year, I think they'll [catch] hardly anything."
The water needs to be about 54 degrees before the male crabs start moving, said Steve Vilnit of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Fisheries Service. "Historically, the hard crab catch remains fairly low in Maryland until the water reaches approximately 58 degrees," Vilnit said. "At that point the harvest picks up dramatically."
Crab-watchers are awaiting the release, later this month, of the annual winter dredge survey, which has been conducted jointly by the DNR and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science since 1990. The survey reveals the number of crabs living in the bay and is a the key piece of data used when deciding whether to ease or tighten catch restrictions.
But the numbers in the dredge survey don't necessarily predict the crab harvest — which ends in December — and is subject to myriad environmental and economic influences. A major storm, for instance, could send the crab population helter-skelter. And just because it's cold now doesn't mean crab populations won't be plentiful later in the season.
Stakeholders including environmentalists, watermen and wholesalers aren't predicting anything beyond a sluggish start to the season.
"You just go about your work. You get your crab pot rigged up and your boat rigged up," said Mark Kitching, a Smith Island crabber who sits on the board of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "You really don't look at the reports. You prepare for the next year and pray for the best. If you went to Vegas and bet on [the harvest], you'd go broke."
The most recent survey, for 2012, estimated the total number of crabs living in the Chesapeake Bay at 764 million, the highest number since 1993. Although the survey's numbers have risen steadily since the late 1990s, they can still fluctuate wildly. They fell from 674 million in 2010 to 461 million in 2011.
Randy Bielski, co-owner of Ocean Pride Seafood Restaurant in Timonium, wasn't so sure about the survey.
"We don't get much out of that," he said. "I wouldn't guess how the summer's going to be. I can get 100 bushels today and zero tomorrow. You just never know."
But many diners might not notice a later start to crab season. Crab cakes, along with other crab dishes, have long been considered year-round eating in the Chesapeake region.
So regardless of whether Maryland crab is in short supply, most crab cakes will still be made with crab meat from the Gulf of Mexico, which has a similar flavor profile as the Chesapeake Bay crab. Others will be made with Indonesian crab meat that — while lumpy — pales, literally, in comparison to the crab meat from Maryland, which is distinguished by its fatty yellow markings.
And not all crab-feasters are bound to the tradition of eating hard-shell crabs only when the weather is almost as steaming as the water in the crab pots.
"People want crabs year-round," said Arthur Piera, a co-owner of Mike's, a popular crab house overlooking Annapolis' South River. Piera, who gets crabs from Florida and Texas during the winter, said that Mike's keeps its crab prices steady from season to season — $45 for a dozen medium, $65 for large — regardless of the prices it pays for them.
"There's not much of a profit in crabs these day," said Piera, who said crab houses make their money on beverage sales. "That's what we're open for — beer, wine and soda."
One of the few crab houses to keep a schedule that matched up with Maryland's crab season was the well-remembered Obrycki's. But the restaurant's co-owner Rob Cernak said the annual winter closing had less to do with supply than his customers' expectations.
"One of the reasons we were seasonal is because people expected us to be seasonal," Cernak said. When his family tried to stay open past its customary late-fall closing date, customers disapproved.
"We lost less money by closing in the winter than by staying open," said Cernak, who said he'd stay open year round if he were starting out fresh. "You'd have to," he said. Cernak said he misses interacting with customers at the old Fells Point restaurant but not worrying from day to day about the availability of crabs. "I don't miss that part of the business one bit," Cernak said.
For the short term, Maryland crabbers may be fetching high prices for their small hauls. In Virginia, where the season started earlier than Maryland's, crabbers are getting per-bushel prices of $135 for male crabs. "The price is the highest I've seen in five years," said Frost, of Maryland Crabs Delivered.
Normal wholesale prices this time of year, Frost said, are $85 for males. After Labor Day, when the harvest peaks and demand slacks off, the prices fall to as little as $35.
But most Marylanders won't notice if Maryland's crab's season starts late or if prices fluctuate wildly.
"The price of crab cake is not going to be influenced by a slow start to Maryland crab season," said DNR's Vilnit.
Until then, prices for hard crabs will do what they typically do, said Vilnit — they start high in the spring and get lower, except for a spike around the summer holidays. "Prices are at their lowest point in September and October when crabs are at their best quality," Vilnit said.
"We'd love to have people wait for Maryland crabs," said Richard Young, owner of Coveside Crabs in Dundalk. "They're the best crabs, hands down."