Slim pickings Maryland faces a low crab count and high prices


Marylanders whose favorite food memories are of sitting down to crack a couple dozen crabs and shoot the breeze may find themselves increasingly dining on exactly that: memories.

That's because the crab-supply situation is bad and could be getting worse, according to some restaurateurs, chefs, watermen, processors and other people involved in putting the steamers, soft shells and crab cakes on Maryland tables.

"It seems like every year things get a little bit worse," said Richard Cernak, owner, with his wife Rose, of Obrycki's in East Baltimore. "I don't know what's going to happen to people who have crab houses and restaurants. Things are bad. I think people should realize that."

At Louie's Bookstore Cafe in Mount Vernon, crab dishes vanished from the menu about two months ago. "It was a combination of high price and poor quality that just forced us to do that," said Dave Sarfaty, executive chef. "We were getting so many complaints" from customers.

And Nancy Longo, chef-owner at Pierpoint in Fells Point, where smoked crab cakes are a popular menu item, said she has had trouble getting crab. "In the past four months, there were a good 20 to 30 days in there when I was told there was no crab meat available at all," she said. "When I write menus now, I've been putting in a lot of things like wild game, which you can get."

During the winter and early spring, crabs come to Maryland tables from the normally warmer Southern waters -- Louisiana, Texas, the Carolinas and Florida. But this year, even Southern crabs were in short supply, and as a result, prices for them soared.

It won't be clear until the Maryland crab harvest begins in earnest (usually sometime early in May) whether mid-Atlantic crabs are going to be as scarce and as pricey as Southern crabs have been. But early indications have not been promising.

"The whole East Coast has had a rough year with crabs," said Noreen Eberly, a seafood marketing specialist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "Crabs go in cycles and it seems like this is one of their down swings."

Slow start to season

Herm Hannan, president of Bo Brooks, which has a crab house on Belair Road in Baltimore and a crab-processing plant in Texas, predicted, based on the company's experiences in Southern waters, that there will be a slow start for the summer crab season. "Chesapeake Bay production won't be significant till probably mid-July," he said. "I don't recall it ever being this bad."

Mr. Cernak said suppliers have told him prices this summer are likely to be above last year's levels of $95-$105 a bushel. "When we first started in this business 20 years ago, it was $14 a bushel," he said.

That could mean diners who sit down to a dozen crabs will be paying $45 for their feast, he said, up from $20 to $25 in recent years.

Professionals responsible for predicting the availability of Maryland's favorite crustacean caution that it's too early to predict what the full season will bring. But they warn that intense pressure on the bay's crab population is responsible for a downward trend in harvests that's been evident over the last five to 10 years.

Exactly what's responsible for that pressure is a matter of debate.

Some blame the resurgence of the rockfish, which can make baby crabs a part of their diet. Some blame the weather; last year's harsh winter was blamed for a late season last year, and could have an impact in the next couple of years by reducing the number of young crabs that grow to market size. Young crabs may be succumbing to pollutants in the water. The catch of too many bay females, and too many pregnant females, may be reducing the rate of repopulation. Exports to other parts of the country and to other countries are cited by some as reducing domestic crab availability. And, finally, there is the the most obvious reason: simple overfishing.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) does an annual survey of the crab population during the winter months, when the crabs are dug into the bottom of the bay. So far this year, said Pete Jensen, director of fisheries, "we have lower abundance that we've had over the last 10 years."

What the department doesn't know, and what no one knows, is whether the population reduction is a simple short-term fluctuation, or whether it is part of a long-term trend.

Maryland has already taken some steps to reduce crab harvest. Last year the state froze all new commercial crabbing licenses, imposed time limits on crab harvesting, and limited the amount

of gear that could be used to catch the crabs.

Limiting the harvest

But Bill Goldsborough, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, based in Annapolis, predicted that the number of blue crabs taken from the bay will have to be limited further to keep the harvest at a sustainable level.

"It's a warning sign," he said, of the population decline, "and the ,, message is, we'd better do a better job of managing our fisheries."

The DNR is currently working on a survey, to be released around the first of May, to determine whether overfishing is a culprit in the crabs' decline.

"What we'd like to do is make sure, if there is a downturn, if it is related to overfishing," Mr. Jensen said. A positive finding would result in swift action from the department, he said. New regulations imposed in the wake of such a finding would further limit the "effort," a measure of how much equipment is in use and how long it's used in crab-catching.

But most people who deal with crabs agree that there are complex factors driving what could very well be the demise of Marylanders' beloved crab feast.

Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, noted that early spring is always a bad time to find crabs, with other states' production winding down and Maryland's not yet under way. But nevertheless, he says, times are changing.

"The difference I see is more and more demand," he said. "You've got people in the South eating crabs who never bothered with them before and people in the North eating crabs who never bothered with them before, you've got crabs being shipped out of the country, to California and Hawaii.

Greater demand

"When we were the only marketplace, you could get crabs from anywhere. Now the marketplace is worldwide. When crabs are scarce you don't have to send them to Baltimore, you send them where you can get the best price."

Mr. Simns has no problem with regulations restricting the crab catch. "You have to have those regulations, because as the market expands, the crab population won't support it," he said. Measures Maryland has already enacted will keep the crab catch at the 40- to 50-million pound level this year, he said, and those pounds will have to be divided among more and more markets. His prediction is that crabs are going to become luxury foods, like shrimp and lobster.

"Baltimore has been spoiled because they had more crabs supplied to them than they could sell," he said. "It's going to be a rude awakening. Now they're going to have to pay the price and they're not going to get all they want."

"We've looked everywhere from Maryland to Ecuador," said Mr. Hannan of Bo Brooks, "and I don't see any tremendous quantity of blue crabs anywhere. For those of us who are truly dependent on crabs, it's not a pretty picture."

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