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Catonsville and Arbutus restaurant owners still waiting for Maryland crab

Headlines around the region for the past two years have warned of low crab populations, and local restaurant owners say they are still waiting for the rebound.

"If we were dependent on Maryland crabs, we probably would have been closed 10 years ago," said Sam Molloy, co-owner of Captain Dick's Crabs Galore on Southwestern Boulevard in Arbutus.

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With Maryland not yet producing enough crabs to harvest and sell this year, the restaurant is subsisting largely on sales of Louisiana crabs, she said. But the situation of using crabs from out of state is far from ideal.

Since 2012, she said, the price she pays for a bushel of Louisiana crabs has gone up more than $100.

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Although she's paying less now than she was earlier this year, she said, the cost of shipping crabs in from the Gulf of Mexico is still a major strain on her family's longtime business.

Many Baltimore-area seafood restaurants gets their crabs from Louisiana while they wait for the Maryland supply to start coming in, she said. Two trucking companies drive bushels up one to two times each day for restaurant supplies. While crabs from Florida and Texas are usually flown, she and other Maryland business owners have found trucking to be the best method to get crabs from closer regions, she said. Crabs used to be flown to Baltimore via commercial airlines, but after having to deal with instances limited space resulting in of bushels of crabs being left on the tarmac in favor of fitting all of the travelers' luggage into the plane, Molloy said it was decided waiting on the truck delivery was worth it.

She said she was paying $295 for a bushel at the beginning of the season and is now paying $275.

Usually, the cost for Maryland crabs is about $175 a bushel, she said.

"I've been doing this for 40 years and it gets harder and harder every year," she said.

According to Chesapeake Bay crab population statistics from the Department of Natural Resources, there's a reason for that.

From about 1993 to 1998, the Bay was sustaining a larger-than-average crab population. In 1998, that number dropped significantly for a period of more than 10 years before spiking back up to above-average in 2010. After another significant decline in 2013, which reduced the population to just half of its 2012 level, the numbers have yet to fully rebound.

Barry Koluch, co-owner of Cravin' Crabs in Lansdowne, said this season has been especially sluggish for his family's crabbing business.

"It's been a rough season so far," he said.

Normally, he said, his father, Paul, a crabber, pulls in two to three bushels of crabs a day from Maryland waters. This year, he's been averaging less than one bushel every day. That is so few that Koluch has had to sell crabs shipped in from Louisiana and Virginia in place of Maryland crabs.

"It's been a rough season so far," he said.

He added that no one seems to have a definitive answer as to why this spring has been so slow. "That's the million-dollar question right there," he said.

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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 sell the crabs until the Maryland season picks up. "It's just sad because we're stuck," he said.

Sue Yim, owners of the Sea Hut Inn in Catonsville agreed.

"It's getting worse every year," she said of the prices she must pay in order to keep crab on her menu. But "we have to deal with it."

Sharon Andrews, co-owner of Ships Cafe in Catonsville and the Oak Creek Cafe in Arbutus, also has a lot riding on Maryland's famous crustacean.

With a new supply of steamers having just been delivered to her Arbutus location, she plans to start selling steamed crabs there by the end of this month. Ships Cafe already sells crabs.

Andrews said she remembers a time when she could get Maryland blue crabs by Memorial Day. Lately though, she said, she doesn't begin getting local bushels until July or August. Last year, she wasn't able to get any.

"Over the years, it just seems to get later and later," she said.

But after hearing reports earlier this spring of sizable baby crab populations, she's hopeful she'll witness a turnaround.

"We're optimistic about it," she said, adding that she expects to be able to sell local crabs by late July or early August. "We're hoping."

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