Most summer mornings, Bunky Chance leaves his dock on Grace Creek before sunrise, in the hope of catching the crabs as they begin stirring for breakfast.
But on this steamy, still day, it’s too hot for many Chesapeake Bay crabs to bother grabbing at the chunks of clams Chance dangles in the Choptank River as bait. He’s back from his crabbing spots by 1 p.m.
It’s unfortunate timing, because the picnic-table delicacy is rarely as valuable as it becomes this week, when demand surges to supply crab feasts from Baltimore to Ocean City.
That’s especially worrisome this season, as uncertainty hangs over the next four months. Many Eastern Shore seafood processing businesses have been hamstrung, if not shut down, by a shortage of visas for the foreign guest workers on whom they have come to rely. Demand for steamed crabs typically starts to fall off after this week, and by late summer and early fall, those crab-picking businesses are some of the only buyers watermen can find for their harvest.
Watermen are used to slow periods, challenging weather conditions, and even shortages of the workers who pick the crabs. But the visa shortage has the entire Chesapeake seafood industry apprehensive that this season could present challenges more severe than they have yet seen.
“That’s just the nature of this beast: It’s feast or famine,” Chance said. “The concern is if the feast is not enough, then do you make it through the famine?”
In a typical year, Maryland watermen sell more than 30 million pounds of crabs, about $55 million worth at docks around the Chesapeake Bay. Most of those, especially the larger male crabs, end up steamed and cracked with mallets on newspaper-covered tables across the state.
But smaller crabs and most females get sold, too, and most of those go to seafood companies that have operated picking houses in waterside communities for generations. Picking crabs — extracting the lump meat that sells for a premium — was once the work of the watermen’s wives. But as they aged out of the tedious task a generation or two ago, and sent their children off to college or to cities to find jobs, the industry turned to women mostly from Mexico, whose seasonal job it now is to clean every last bit of backfin and jumbo lump meat from the crab’s carcass.
For crab businesses, obtaining the H2-B visas that are required to bring temporary foreign workers has long been a complicated process. They compete with landscapers, pool cleaners, golf courses, hoteliers and other summer businesses for the coveted slots.
This year, for the first time, extreme demand prompted U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to award the visas by a lottery.
Many Eastern Shore picking houses lost out twice — first, when the regular allotment of 33,000 visas for summertime work was doled out, and again when the government handed out an extra 15,000 visas last month.
As a result, industry leaders say, Maryland’s picking houses are without at least a third of their normal workforce.
At least three picking houses are now sitting idle, or barely scraping by, when they would normally be just starting their busy season. For the rest, it’s still early to assess the impact. But across the seafood industry, there is apprehension that the pain will soon trickle down, cutting into sales and dropping prices.
Jack Brooks, operator of J.M. Clayton Seafood Co. in Cambridge, worries it will be felt as soon as next week, once the rush of Fourth of July crab feasts ends.
“People will be scratching their heads saying, ‘What are we going to do with our crabs?’ ” he asked. “Who knows what will happen after the holiday?
It will just depend on how hungry people are to eat crabs.”
At Chesapeake Landing Restaurant in St. Michaels, the hunger was strong. The phone wouldn’t stop ringing as customers ordered bushel after bushel of steamed crabs for the holiday week.
Chrissy Pierce drove from Harrisburg, Pa., on Tuesday for a bushel of live crabs. For a second year in a row, she planned to dump them into a pot with Old Bay seasoning and steam them herself for the Fourth of July. She arrived at the restaurant prepared with two big coolers to get them home still alive and pinching.
But restaurant owner Joe Spurry, who also operates the wholesaler Bay Hundred Seafood, says customers lose interest as the summer goes on. The Fourth of July is the earnest beginning of crab season, but also its peak.
“It’s the biggest weekend of the year,” he said. “Long term, it helps to hit these weekends. It really gives you a shot in the arm.
“But it doesn’t make a season.”
There is always a restaurant market for the biggest crabs, the so-called No. 1’s — those that measure 5½ or 6 inches across and sell for $70 a dozen, or $200 a bushel. Those are most plentiful in the fresher waters of the middle and upper portions of the Chesapeake.
But smaller crabs are a tougher sell — especially if picking houses aren’t buying as many of them. Smaller crabs — watermen call them “culls” — are more abundant in the saltier waters off the lower Eastern Shore, around Dorchester and Somerset counties.
Once demand for crab feasts slackens, picking houses become important buyers of any of those undersized crustaceans.
With reduced capacity to process crab meat, some in the industry predict, markets for live crabs around Baltimore and Ocean City will be flooded with smaller crabs, because watermen will have no other place to sell them. They need a paycheck, regardless of the catch, the weather or the demand. But that surge in supply could drive down prices for hard crabs — good for consumers, but one more pressure on seafood economics.
Markets in Baltimore are already dealing with a federal crackdown on the use of food stamps to buy cooked crabs. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is not supposed to be used for heated or prepared food. And to accept SNAP, retailers must offer a mix of food staples.
Although the crab season has started slow, this summer’s harvest numbers could still be decent. The Chesapeake crab population was down 18 percent in an annual survey this winter, but a surging group of juvenile crabs could grow big enough to catch late in the season.
Watermen are used to fluctuations in how much they might catch. But they’re less accustomed to having trouble finding a buyer for their harvest.
“Just because you put your line in the water doesn’t mean you’re going to catch them,” said Jeff Harrison, a Talbot County waterman. “So when you do catch them, that’s why you really need to sell them.”
Chance, the Bozman waterman, believes restaurants might offer more all-you-can-eat crab nights to help sell off some of the surplus of smaller crabs. But that could have the unintended consequence of hurting sales of some of the bigger catch, potentially affecting even the upper bay watermen who don’t sell to picking houses as often as their comrades on the lower shore.
“It’s kind of like a delicate balance,” he said. “It’s kind of like nature.”
Then there is the continuing influence of imports from Venezuela, the Philippines and Indonesia, another factor undercutting Maryland’s seafood industry. The amount of swimming crab, a grouping that includes Chesapeake blue crabs, imported into the United States has more than doubled since 2000, to more than 57 million pounds worth $587 million last year, according to National Marine Fisheries Service.
Chance suspects that cost-conscious customers will opt not only for smaller crabs, but also for cheaper imported meat. He worries that even if the visa issue is resolved for next season, the damage will be done as customers get used to the lower prices on the foreign product.
This is his 41st crabbing season, and though he feels as if he has seen it all, he worries how much of his industry will make it through the latest turbulence.
All he can do is have faith.
“It’s probably going to have us sitting home more than we care to be, just with no place to sell them,” Chance said. “We just get up, go to work, hope for the best, prepare for the worst and give thanks to God in between. That’s kind of our philosophy.