Chesapeake crab

Tony Conrad, of Conrad's Crabs and Seafood, holds a Chesapeake crab. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun / June 24, 2012)

Independence Day means steamed crabs for many Marylanders, but the outlook for celebrating the nation's birthday with a heaping tableful of locally caught crustaceans is as iffy as the weather of late.

Despite a bumper crop of crabs tallied in the Chesapeake Bay during last winter's survey, that bounty has yet to show up at local docks or seafood outlets, watermen and dealers report.

The big crab houses and restaurants always stock their coolers with crabs shipped up from Louisiana or Texas, and some seafood businesses have augmented the local catch with crabs trucked in from down the bay or North Carolina.

Some insist they're swimming in crabs, but others caution they have fewer to sell than last year.

Whichever the case, all agree that the holiday always brings a surge in customers who gobble up whatever is available. Prices, as a result, aren't any lower than in years past — with a bushel of big males running up to $279 and more in the Baltimore area, and a dozen steamed at a restaurant anywhere from $30 to more than $100, depending on size.

"There's just never enough crabs Fourth of July," said Jack Brooks, co-owner of the J.M. Clayton Co. in Cambridge, which has been selling crabs and crab meat since 1890. "The demand always outstrips the supply."

Maryland officials declared in April that the bay was brimming with 764 million crabs, the most seen since 1993 in the annual survey of the iconic crustacean conducted in partnership with Virginia. But the seemingly bountiful tally included a record 567 juvenile crabs, mostly too small to be legally caught until late summer or fall.

Crab season got off to a slow start in April, with the reported catch well below average, said Brenda K. Davis, who oversees crabbing for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Things picked up some in May, according to incomplete reports, she said, but the harvest continued to lag behind last year's.

Watermen from the Choptank River south on the bay have said their catch has been picking up in recent weeks, and dealers say they're shipping all they can to Baltimore, Washington, Ocean City and the Delaware beaches — though never enough to meet the summer demand.

"They've picked up a lot, but not a whole lot," said Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "It still ain't really all that great."

"Our customers are all wanting more than we can ship them," said Brooks, whose company looks out first for its steady customers.

Crabbers in the Baltimore area say they've had more lean days than good ones this year.

"It's just been miserable," said Richard Young of Dundalk, who figures his catch is off 50 percent from what it was last year.

"We're seeing a good number of little ones," he added. "They're just not big enough."

Prices are as variable as the weather, too.

Clayton's, which is mainly a wholesaler, does sell retail to anyone who makes the trek to its Cambridge processing plant — $65 for a bushel of No. 2, or medium, males, up to $130 a bushel for large ones from the Choptank River.

On this side of the Bay Bridge, the prices pinch more.

At Coveside Crabs in Dundalk, co-owner Lee Carrion says she's selling "girls" (aka females) for $20 a dozen, three dozen for $55. Males range from $32 a dozen for mediums to $42 for "big boys" six inches across and up, all from Maryland waters. With the catch so variable lately, Carrion said, she's advising customers to call in orders early. Purchases will keep on ice for up to 36 hours before steaming, she added.

At Conrad's Crabs & Seafood Market in Parkville, a bushel of male crabs runs from $139 for small ones to $249 for large ones, and a dozen from $24 for small males or females up to $74 a dozen for extra-large males and $88 for jumbos.