Eyes peeled for peelers


TAYLORS ISLAND-- --The crab is bursting. Slowly, it kicks its legs and thrusts forward, pushing and writhing. In a matter of minutes, it wriggles out of its shell, its bluish skin soft as Jell-O.

Bonnie Willey doesn't have much time before the crab hardens again. The tiny redhead plucks the crab from its plywood tank, plops it onto newsprint lining an old milk crate, and puts the crate in a walk-in cooler. She carries out this ritual as she has dozens of times a day, thousands of times every summer, for the past 20 years.

For most Marylanders, the first soft-shell crabs taste like summer, like freedom coated in Old Bay and mayonnaise and smashed between two slices of white bread. But to Willey, they mark the beginning of a long period of confinement.

From May until September, Willey and her husband, Mike, do not stray far from the red roadside pavilion that shelters their tanks on this remote Dorchester County peninsula. They don't take summer vacations and rarely even go out to dinner. As keepers of the crabs, they're on hand 24 hours a day to whisk the soft-shells out of their "sloughing tanks" before they begin to harden again.

"You can get baby sitters, but you can't get someone to take care of the peelers," said Willey, 55. "When we're here, we're here nonstop."

Male and female crabs shed their shells several times in their life cycles as they grow. Females also shed so they can mate, which they do every spring. But while a few crabs come out of the water already soft, most come up as hard crabs in various stages of undress.

It's up to people like the Willeys who run a "peeler pen," as the operation under the red pavilion is called, to determine when the crabs will shed. And they have it down to a science.

First, Willey drives her golf cart over to the dock at Slaughter's Creek to inspect the crabbers' catch. She checks each crab for a mark on its fin that tells her when it will molt. Then she sorts them into the 40 tanks she and her husband built out of plywood, which are filled with water pumped in from the creek.

The so-called green peelers, which have a green-gray cast to them, have a gray mark on their back fin indicating they will molt in a week. The red rings, which have a red semicircle on their back fin, will molt in two days. And the rank peelers, which are used as bait, will shed in a matter of hours. Each of the three types must be kept separately because, if they mix, the crabs that are still hard can eat the soft ones.

If she misses the shed by even a few hours and a crab begins to harden again, it will be worthless - a "paper shell" so skinny from the shedding that it won't have any meat on it.

So, every three to four hours, Bonnie Willey is checking the tanks and scooping out soft crabs. She has some help - Mike tends to the tanks when he's not crabbing, her four daughters occasionally take a shift, and Mike's teen-age cousin, Frank Willey, has been on call 24 hours a day for years. Island neighbors and friends also pitch in.

But the Willeys say they cannot trust many people to stay up all night with the crabs because, eventually, everyone falls asleep. That has made for some interesting mornings.

Once, Mike Willey found his wife in their driveway, going through the motions of tank-tending in her sleep. Another time, Bonnie Willey fell asleep with a cigarette in her mouth; she woke up when it burned her lip.

"I've actually sleepwalked and woke up in a pile of fishing chain," she said. "I don't know how I got there."

There have been rare interruptions to Bonnie Willey's crab vigil. While she was pregnant with her youngest daughter, doctors put Willey on bed rest. Over her husband's protests, she sorted the crabs even while lying down. When little Ashley Willey arrived several weeks early, Mike shuttled between the hospital and the peeler pen.

Over the years, it has been a decent living. One day this week, soft-shells were selling for about $30 a dozen for the largest, called "whales," and $14 a dozen for the smaller "hotels" - which usually "sleep" two to a bun on a sandwich. Though the price changes daily, a soft-shell generally sells for more than twice what a hard-shell fetches.

Last year, Maryland watermen harvested 30 million pounds of crabs. The percentage of those that were soft crabs is very small, said Lynn Fegley, a fisheries biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources blue crab program.

"If you think about it, soft-shell crabs are not soft-shell crabs for more than a day," Fegley said.

Marylanders begin looking for the soft-shells each spring, and they're willing to pay big money for them. Last weekend at Cantler's Riverside Inn near Annapolis, diners enjoyed 250 soft-shell sandwiches, which cost $9 each, and 65 platters, which cost $17.99.

But manning the tanks is not as lucrative as it was a decade ago, when the Willeys found themselves shipping out 600 dozen soft crabs in one night.

Cheaper imports from the Southern states can drive down the prices. Maryland's restrictions on the harvest have increased, in part because the crabs are not as plentiful as they were. The crabs that are around are notoriously spotty - abundant in one spot, scarce just a thousand feet away. And the weather is fickle - one spring nor'easter or summer heat wave can wipe out a whole peeler pen.

Further complicating the peeler business is that the crabs don't always shed when they're expected to. Though crabs shed all summer, the majority begin their shed in early May, and that run lasts until mid-June. About 30 percent wait until August to shed. But depending on the water temperature, those dates can change. And though lore has it that a massive shed occurs in the week after a full moon, the Willeys' tanks weren't overflowing after last Sunday's.

Those challenges, coupled with the tedium of the tending, have put many peeler pens out of business. The Willeys' operation is one of a few left in the state, and they have to supplement their business by selling bait and catching and selling hard crabs.

"Somebody's making the money, and it's not Mike and Bonnie," said Floyd Walters, a part-time crabber and retired middle school principal who works the Little Choptank in his boat, Floyd's Folly.

Using salted chicken necks along a trotline, Walters catches peelers and hard crabs, which he sells to the Willeys. Most mornings, when Walters gets out on the water by 4:45 a.m., a sunburned Mike Willey is already there on his boat, The River Rat. Sometimes, Bonnie crabs, too. Both claim to sleep no more than four hours a night.

Both Dorchester County natives, the Willeys grew up with their fathers, grandfathers and uncles all working the bay. Except for a stint in the Marines, Mike Willey has worked the water all his life. During the winter, they used to oyster, but now Bonnie cleans houses and Mike fishes for perch and rockfish.

The Willeys can see that the island they love is changing, too. Few people who work the water can afford to live there anymore. Occasionally, the new neighbors living in the luxurious waterfront homes complain about the karaoke parties the Willeys throw in the peeler pen's driveway; once, someone called the police.

But Bonnie Willey is hanging on. She watches, fascinated, as another peeler sheds its shell. Her freckled face lights up in wonder as the new soft crab swims away. She has seen it thousands of times, maybe even millions, but it still amazes her.

"I snipe sometimes, and I get tired, but I can't imagine doing anything else," she said. "We'll probably do this until the day we kick the bucket."


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