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.
"Right now, it's an OK supply," said John Ecker, a manager at the 5-year-old establishment, which is supplementing the crabs caught by owner Tony Conrad with shipments from farther south in the bay.
"We're still taking orders for all week," Ecker said. "We're not cutting anything off yet."
Ocean Pride Restaurant & Carryout in Lutherville is still taking orders, said Cheryl Hutchison, with per-dozen prices running from $42 for mediums to $95 for jumbos; and from $199 per bushel for mediums to $279 for large ones.
In Odenton, Crab Galley manager Vinny Glasgow assured he has "tons" of crabs, a mix of locally caught and those trucked in. Prices range from $31 per dozen or $189 per bushel for mediums to $49 a dozen and $235 per bushel for large males.
The outlook at crab restaurants is just as variable.
At Nick's Fish House and Grill on the Middle Branch in South Baltimore, general manager David Acquarulo said the menu is "fully stocked" and predicted the eatery will have all sizes throughout the holiday week. All the medium and large crabs are locally caught, he said, while the extra-larges and jumbos come from the South, mostly Louisiana. Prices run from $54 per dozen for mediums to $98 for jumbos.
At Ships Cafe Restaurant and Crab House in Catonsville, co-owner Jim Andrews said that like most year-round eateries, he has also relied on Louisiana for a steady supply of the large crabs favored by restaurant patrons. His per-dozen prices run from $30 for smalls up to $105 for jumbos, which, he said, are large enough that most customers only can eat a half-dozen.
Though Louisiana crabs were plentiful early in spring, he said, sources have largely dried up, forcing him to scramble for some from Texas. Even so, he estimated he's getting less than half than he did a year ago.
"Last year I used to call my suppliers and tell them how many boxes of crabs I wanted," Andrews said. "This year, they call me and tell me how many I'm getting."
William Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Seafood Industries Association, said that despite this crab season's slow start, he's hopeful that "there'll probably be enough to go around."
The wild card may be the power outages that hit the Baltimore and Washington areas over the weekend. People without electricity and air conditioning may not be thinking much about crabs, Sieling said, so if many remain without power through the week, demand could be depressed enough to ensure an ample supply for those still in the market for a feast.
While Baltimore crab eaters may be at the mercy of higher-priced dealers, Sieling predicted that customers elsewhere ought to be able to get a bushel of large males for $130 to $150.
Still, he urged consumers not to wait until the last minute and to buy from suppliers they know.
"I'm cautiously optimistic that people will not get gouged and they'll get enough," he concluded.
However things turn out for the Fourth, DNR's Davis said that with so many little crabs in the bay, consumers just need to be patient and wait for them to grow up.
"We ought to have a good fall," Davis said, suggesting a new Maryland feast tradition: "Football and crabs."