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Early mornings on water part of dream to own Lansdowne crabhouse

As the sun rose on a recent Tuesday morning, Paul Koluch and his brother Kevin powered their boat through the briny water of North Point Creek.

Once they located one of their 32 crab lines, they began pulling up crab pots, large cages with bait hidden inside to attract the crabs.

Twenty-five pots were attached to each of the 32 lines. The labor-intensive process of pulling in the lines can last for five hours.

Crab season began April 1, but it's gotten off to a slow start for watermen like Paul Koluch, 55, who co-owns Cravin' Crabs in Lansdowne, with his son, Barry Koluch.

The crabs Paul and Kevin, 52, catch will be sold at the crab house on Annapolis Road. Other crab houses in the area sell crabs they buy from watermen, but Cravin' Crabs is the only local restaurant with owners who catch the crabs they sell.

Pulling up the pots, the Koluch brothers were disappointed to find few blue crabs inside. On this day, they caught three bushels, which sell for $155 each. They are then steamed with seasoning and sold at Cravin' Crabs for $60 per dozen for crabs measuring between 6 and 6.5 inches.

"We're barely making a profit right now," Barry said.

Each day, they catch crabs on their Carolina Skiff motorboat, they must pay for gas and bait, which costs approximately $200, Barry said.

"We're about a month behind," Paul said, after pulling up numerous pots.

His brother sorted through the crabs, measuring them to make sure they met the five-inch minimum size.

Paul has been crabbing in the waters of North Point Creek behind his Fort Howard Home since mid-May. Catching the crustaceans is part of his childhood. The brothers are second-generation watermen, who are passing the tradition on to their sons, Barry and Frank Koluch.

Paul still is employed full time at Baltimore Gas and Electric, where he works from 2:30 to 11:30 p.m. after catching crabs all morning.

Opening the Lansdowne crabhouse in 2010 was a "dream" for him and his son Barry, 32.

Barry grew up catching crabs with his father in the Chesapeake Bay. He then left a job corporate sales and went into business with him.

Since then, the two have been commercial crabbing together with other family members to stock their crab house during the spring, summer and fall months.

Business is slow for the store, which specializes in Maryland blue crabs and shrimp, during the winter months. They rely on sales during the summer months to stay afloat throughout the rest of the year, Barry Koluch said.

Which is why a slow crab season has been difficult for the Lansdowne crabhouse owners.

Both were expecting a good year for crabbing before the season began. They remain hopeful their luck will turn around.

The low crab population is the result of a variety of factors, including the unusually cold winter, coastal currents, weather patterns and natural predators, according to a Maryland Department of Natural Resources statement issued May 1.

Cold water temperatures this winter led to one of the worst cold-kill events since 1990 and caused the death of an estimated 28 percent of adult crabs in Maryland, the statement said.

The juvenile crab population has increased 78 percent from 2013, which was a record low. However, the female population is approximately 69 million, below the minimum safe level of 70 million, according to results from DNR's 2014 Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey.

Crab harvest is expected to be slow for a while, said Brenda Gavis, blue crab manager for the DNR.

Gavis said although there are fewer adult crabs now, the larger population of juvenile crabs, which is higher this year than last, means the situation could improve before the end of the year.

"It's not all bleak," Gavis said. "The juvenile crabs are expected to grow into adult harvestable size in the fall."

However, that may not work in favor of watermen such as the Koluchs and their customers.

Gavis anticipates the DNR will do something to protect female spawning crabs.

"There will be some decreases in allowable harvest in some jurisdictions — at least in the fall of the 2014 harvest. We're not sure what those will be yet," Gavis said.

Such regulations could take a toll on commercial crabbers, Barry said.

"It wouldn't hurt us that much because we can get crabs from out of state," Barry said. "It really hurts the commercial crabbers who make most of their money in the fall.

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