It's going to cost you a bushel to put a couple dozen of those tasty large, steamed crabs on the dinner table tonight.
A shortage of crabs along the East Coast -- described by some dealers as the worst they've seen in 15 years or more -- is forcing shoppers to pay $150, even $165, for a bushel of blues that sold for as little as $65 a year ago.
"Crab meat, it's like buying gold," Tom Quillen, a buyer at Phillips Crab House in Ocean City, said yesterday. The wholesale "price jumped $3 to $3.50 a pound last week alone, and you were lucky if you could get any," he said.
At the retail level, consumers are paying $15 for back fin that cost between $7 and $8 last year, according to Virgil Wilson, a buyer at Sea Pride, a popular West Baltimore crab house.
At Giant supermarkets in the Baltimore area, pasteurized back-fin crab meat was priced at $21.99 yesterday for a one-pound container.
In some cases customers couldn't get crabs at any price. Phillips' Ocean City restaurant ran out of crabs Sunday evening.
Suppliers blame the shortage on unusual weather patterns that have hit almost the entire harvesting area from Louisiana to New England. They say cool ocean winds have kept water temperatures low, limiting the movement of crabs and keeping them out of the crabbing pots.
"It's been warm, cold, warm, cold all spring," George W. McManus, owner of J.J. McDonnell Co. Inc., a seafood wholesaler at the Wholesale Fish Market in Jessup. "I don't know where the crabs go when it's cold," he said, "but they don't go to the crabbers' crab pots."
Pollution does not seem to be a factor. A spokesman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said he was unaware of any such problems in the harvesting areas that would account for the shortage.
A dozen medium-size males that sold for $12 last Memorial Day weekend cost $20 at the Carney Crab House on Joppa Road. The cost of a larger crab jumped from $18 to $25.
Joe Zacharski, owner of the Carney Crab House, said the supply situation is worse this year than in any he can remember in more than 30 years.
In normal years, he said, one harvest area might be slow but that slack would be picked up by a good harvest in another state. "North Carolina might be slow, but Louisiana would be heavy. But this time, harvesting has been slow in all areas," he said.
Crab dealers are hoping that supplies will return to more typical levels in June or July when the water warms.
"I'm a crab person," explained Pat Little, as she willingly handed $12 over the counter at Sea Pride for a dozen females that might have cost her $7 last year. "I'll go whatever the market demands," she said, "up to a certain extent."
"We're not trying to rip you off," Paul Wilson, a salesman at Sea Pride, told Ms. Little, as he held a pair of crustaceans covered with seasoning. "Our costs have really skyrocketed since last year."
Mr. Wilson said Sea Pride, at Monroe and Pratt streets, closed three hours early Sunday night and opened four hours late Monday when its crab supply ran out.
Another customer, Bill Miller, walked away when he saw the prices for the female crabs. "That's too expensive for my taste," he said, as he walked across Monroe Street, hoping prices might be lower at Bay Island Seafood.
Mr. Zacharski at Carney Crab House said he was selling large males for $150 a bushel last weekend. Last year, he said, his highest price was $65.
"I've heard that crabs are going for as much as $165 a bushel," said Bill Martin, president of Martin Seafood Co., a wholesaler in Jessup.
At Bud Paolino's on East Lombard Street, Joseph Bush, the restaurant's vice president, said he could have sold 25 or 30 more bushels over the holiday weekend if he had had them. The restaurant ran out of crabs Monday evening.
To help business, he said, the establishment has limited its sale of carryout crabs and eliminated carryout sales of its larger crabs.
"Prices are real high," he said, noting that a dozen blues that cost $16 last year now sell for about $40. The restaurant's popular all-you-can-eat special that cost $9 last year is now $17.
"People come in and see these prices and they are shocked," said Mr. Zacharski. "They say, 'I can get a much better price down the road.' But they usually come back back and buy shrimp or something else."