With Father's Day looming, consumers' appetite for steamed crabs is growing.
But restaurants are paying $50 to $60 more per bushel for crabs than they did at this time last year — and consumers are paying $2 to $15 more per dozen, according to local restaurateurs.
Though locally caught crabs are rarely plentiful this time of year, a scarcity of mature Maryland crabs has been driving up prices for all sources of crabs for Maryland restaurants, say many in the industry.
"This is one of the slimmest springs we've seen in a long time," said Anthony Conrad of Parkville-based Conrad's Crabs & Seafood Market. "The price ... is outrageous for a box of Louisiana male crabs," he said — typically about $250, it's now about $60 higher. The price for a bushel of Maryland crabs is lower — anywhere from $130 to $180 a bushel. But there aren't nearly enough Maryland crabs to supply Maryland restaurants.
Conrad catches some of the crabs he uses for his restaurants and seafood market, and buys others directly from Maryland watermen. He'll rely on Louisiana and Carolina crabs when he has to. He's charging customers $59 a dozen for large crabs.
The short supply of Maryland crabs has a broad impact, even affecting the prices of crabs at restaurants that primarily buy crabs from elsewhere, he said.
"It means that prices of crabs are going to be much higher because the suppliers in North Carolina and Louisiana are going to be charging more," Conrad said. "So it makes it a fun industry."
The catch this year has been leaner than usual, says Brenda Davis, chief of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' crab program.
"We've got a really slow start in Maryland," said Davis. There were fewer crabs to harvest at the start of the season in April, she said, because last winter's bitter cold killed a lot of the adult crustaceans that slumbered on the bottom in Maryland waters. The annual winter survey of the crab population found that, across the entire bay, 19 percent of adult crabs perished; in Maryland, that number rose to 28 percent.
The bay's overall crab population has come back some from the dismal condition it was in last year, when the survey found the number of adult female crabs had been depleted. This year, following a season of tightened restrictions on the harvest of female crabs, the survey saw a 35 percent increase in the number of juvenile crabs. But those won't be large enough to harvest until later in the summer or fall, she said.
"We started the season with a bunch of small crabs," Davis said "so we've got to wait for more crabs to move in and grow up."
Baltimore County crabber Richard Young said he's had slim pickings for Coveside Crabs, the Dundalk business he co-owns. On Friday, he said, the 210 pots he's set in the bay held fewer than six dozen crabs fit for steaming. And while his daily catch this time of year normally includes several dozen "peelers" — young crabs nearly ready to slough their shells, so they can be sold as soft crabs — he only came back with nine on Friday.
"We are seeing some smaller crabs," Young said, "but it's not an astronomical number."
Crab houses that use a mix of Maryland and out-of-state suppliers said they will continue to use crabs from elsewhere while they wait for the Maryland supply to increase. But it's painful.
"We're battling through high prices, the highest we've ever paid," said Pete Triantafilos, whose family owns Costas Inn on North Point Boulevard in Dundalk.
Triantafilos said the cost per bushel for crabs from Texas is up 50 percent from last year. With Maryland crabs in short supply, there's not much choice but to pay the price.
"There's nothing to offset the market," he said.
For Costas' customers, that means paying $80 a dozen for large crabs, versus $78 at this time last year.
"As far as expenses on restaurants, it takes its toll," Triantafilos said. "Crabs have always been a draw, but they've never been a moneymaker. But now it's very difficult. You can literally buy lobsters cheaper than you can crabs."
"We have had [crabs] available on a constant basis," said Bruce Whelan, a manager at Jimmy Cantler's Riverside Inn in Annapolis. "We haven't had a problem getting them."
Whelan said that most of the restaurant's crabs are from Louisiana and Texas, but as the season goes on, more will be from Maryland. Those crabs are more expensive this year than last, Whelan said, "about $50 [per box, or about 11/4 bushels] more expensive than they were last year at this time."
That price increase translates to the crab table. "The dozen large crabs that went for $75 this time last year is $90 now," Whelan said.
"We try as much as we can to use local crabs," Whelan said. "Because the water was so cold this winter, it's going to take a while. They're starting to come in more and more."
For crab lovers like John Schweitzer, the cost of a crab dinner is still worth it.
"It would have to get awful expensive for me to give it up," Schweitzer said. "Even when we were kids, we didn't get crabs all the time; it was a real treat."
Schweitzer said a crab feast is about something more than food. "My sister was visiting from Ohio, and she wanted to go [to Costas Inn]. We were there for two hours and had a great time."
Terri Mitchell, a 53-year-old Northwest Baltimore resident, eats a meal of the crustaceans once a week. But Mitchell finds that as the price of crabs rises, she has to be more creative about how she treats herself.
"If you eat crabs, you're going to find a way to eat them," she said, "but they're very expensive."
"I remember a long time ago when they were $20 a dozen. Now, they're $50, and they're small. I don't think that's fair because they're our state mascot. I scout for sales and for deals. Maybe I'll have crabs on a Wednesday night, when there's a special, instead of on the weekends. It's just a mess."
Whelan said he expects the supply of Maryland crabs to "break loose" in the next week or 10 days, but that Father's Day and the Fourth of July, along with the return home of college students and lacrosse tournaments, traditional occasions for crab feasts, will likely keep the prices of crabs high across the board.
Whelan said the best bet for consumers looking for reasonably priced crabs is to wait until after the Fourth of July.
"By the end of July, it's going to be a very good season," Conrad aid. ""It's a very bright future."
Barry Koluch, co-owner of Cravin' Crabs in Lansdowne, said, his father, Paul, a crabber, typically pulls in two to three bushels of crabs a day from Maryland waters. This year, he's been averaging less than one bushel a day. That means Koluch has had to have crabs shipped in from Louisiana and Virginia in place of Maryland crabs.
"It's been a rough season so far," he said.
Making matters worse is the fact that the cost to ship crabs in from other regions is very high, he said.
"They know we don't have crabs," he said of vendors selling the Maryland favorites from the Gulf of Mexico.
But with a steady demand, he said, he is forced to pay whatever the vendors demand until the Maryland season picks up. "It's just sad because we're stuck," he said.
For now, Conrad said, the business will be tough for retailers and restaurateurs.
"Crabs are becoming a luxury item," Conrad said. "It's no longer, 'Let's go out and get some crabs.'"
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Tim Wheeler, Mary Carole McCauley and Heather Norris contributed to this article.