Water to table: With summer in full swing, the crab business steams on

Craig Kirkner and Charlie Ross stand across from each other in a small, refrigerated back room at Conrad's Crabs & Seafood Market on Joppa Road, near Towson.

One by one, the men take turns picking blue crabs out of boxes, sorting the crabs by vitality, size and weight and tossing them into baskets. The work is "tedious," 18-year-old Kirkner said, and sometimes messy, but necessary to support the uniquely Maryland tradition of producing steamed crabs in the summertime.

"I always thought it was a novelty," said Kirkner, who has worked at the store for four years. "I didn't really know what went into it. There are those who think you just go catch them and steam them, but it's a lot more work than that."

Kirkner and Ross said they sort between 6,000 and 10,000 blue crabs each weekday. The job requires a keen eye to sort quickly so crabs make it to customers' plates within 24 hours.

Conrad's owner, Tony Conrad, is also a waterman. When his customers eat his crabs in the evening, especially in season, there's a good chance Conrad caught them that morning.

Debbie Thomas, of Towson, stopped at Conrad's on her lunch break recently to pick up two soft shell crabs for that night's dinner, at $9 a piece.

"I'm going to put them on a sandwich, with my homegrown tomatoes," Thomas said.

With crab season entering its prime time, watermen and crab shop operators say this year's supply is meeting demand, even though populations of the Chesapeake blues are declining.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources in June announced the state would be shortening the commercial crabbing season by 10 days on Nov. 20, and impose bushel limits after a survey revealed a drop in juvenile crabs in the Chesapeake Bay from the previous year.

The bay provides 50 percent of the nation's blue crabs.

In 2016, there were 550 million crabs in the bay, according to an annual winter crab survey, 35 percent more than a year earlier and one of the highest counts in two decades. As a result, Maryland and Virginia allowed watermen to harvest crabs three weeks later into November than the year before and they sold about 20 percent more crabs.

This year, the count fell to 455 million, a decrease experts attributed to the variable nature of the species. The bay's blue crab population is subject to factors as varied as water currents, winter temperatures and levels of oxygen in the water. Add crabs' short life span, two to three years, and population dynamics can swing dramatically from one year to the next.

Juvenile crabs are catchable by fall, so the "concerning" low abundance meant it made sense to reduce the harvesting period this year and conserve that population, according to Michael Luisi, an assistant director with the department's Fishing and Boating Services.

Although the juvenile crab class "plummeted," the adult female crab population saw about a 30 percent increase, Luisi said.

The cut in commercial crabbing days isn't severe, indicating that the situation "isn't as bad as it sounds," Robert T. Brown Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said. "This is a precautionary measure."

A fluctuating market

The seafood industry contributes about $600 million to the state's economy every year, according to state statistics. The dockside value of blue crabs in Maryland has fluctuated during the past two decades, with data from 2000 to 2014 showing a peak of $79 million in 2010 and a low of $30.3 million in 2002.

Crab prices are determined by multiple factors, including demand from consumers, costs for watermen and the price of out-of-state crabs coming into the local market. A number of popular restaurants — including Cantler's Riverside Inn in Annapolis and The Point Crab House and Grill in Arnold — say increased supplies of local crabs have let them lower prices in recent years.

At Conrad's Crabs, consumer carryout prices this year can range from $20 a dozen for smaller crabs to $100 a dozen for jumbo males.

The store's cost per bushel, which range from three dozen jumbo crabs in a bushel to eight dozen small crabs, varies from $100 for Maryland crabs fished from the Choptank River to $140 a bushel for crabs from the Upper Chesapeake Bay.

Ben Lewis, manager of Conrad's Crabs' carryout location in Parkville, said much of the shop's business is in carryout steamed crabs. Though he does not think shortening the crabbing season is necessary, he is not concerned that it will negatively affect business.

The store also gets crabs from four other crabbers in Maryland, North Carolina and Louisiana, to meet the summertime demand of up to 150 bushels of crabs a day.

"It's not going to have an effect on Conrad's," Lewis said. "That time of year crabs are so far down the bay anyway."

The restrictions do create conflict with some watermen, Luisi said.

"By shortening the season by 10 days, you're basically telling a crabber who crabs in the fall he has 10 days less to work this month," Luisi said.

For Paul and Barry Koluch, of Cravin' Crabs, that's typically 10 bushels per day.

Paul Koluch, the 58-year-old co-owner of Cravin' Crabs works with his son, Barry Koluch, 35, who runs the shop in Arbutus while his dad mans the waters from 6 a.m. to the afternoon, due to state regulations that cap crabbers' days at eight hours after sunrise.

Despite potential revenue declines from the state-mandated shortened commercial season, the Koluchs join some Maryland crab shop owners who support the state's measures to preserve populations for future generations.

Barry Koluch, whose store usually crabs until November, said the shortened season won't necessarily affect their ability to go onto the water but will affect the store's costs.

"If they change regulations for any reason, it directly affects our bottom line. The people, they won't even notice," he said, adding that Cravin' Crabs doesn't increase its prices for the consumers but the store swallows the costs.

Barry Koluch said he agrees with the state's conservation because, for him, crabbing is a family affair passed down from generation to generation that doubles as a way of life. There's nothing like getting together around a bushel of steamed crabs, relaxing and enjoying each other's company in the summer, he said.

"It's one of the most unique Baltimore traditions there is," he said.

This story has been updated to correct the address of Conrad's.

The Baltimore Sun and Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Margarita Cambest contributed to this story.

 

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