Crabs are plentiful so far this year in Maryland, but that doesn't mean there'll be enough to go around on Independence Day weekend, when nearly every patriotic Marylander, it seems, dreams of feasting on the state's official crustacean. Nor will they be cheap — with the price for a bushel of big Jimmies, or male crabs, topping $200 in some places.
Seafood dealers, restaurateurs and watermen say there's a good supply of blue crabs coming out of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries right now, despite the cold snap last winter that scientists say killed roughly a third of the population. Even with that apparent die-off, state biologists say the annual baywide survey tallied the second highest count since the late 1990s.
"It's plenty of crabs everywhere," said Janet Ruark of Rippons Brothers Seafood on Hoopers Island, a hotbed of crabbing in Dorchester County. "God's good," she said. "He always provides when it's needed."
The season for catching crabs in Maryland begins April 1, but it's often mid- to late May or even early June before the water warms enough that they're abundant. In the past few weeks, by several accounts, the supply has picked up.
"We're in 'em," said Jack Brooks, co-owner of J.M. Clayton Seafood in Cambridge, which sells live and steamed crabs retail and wholesale. "And if nothing happens, if this holds up for the next week, there's going to be a nice supply of local Maryland crabs" for the holiday weekend.
But others noted that consumer demand for crabs peaks around the Fourth of July. And just as a looming snowstorm clears grocery store shelves of toilet paper, the short-term rush to eat crabs over the long holiday weekend may deplete the supply pipeline.
Could it be the crabs somehow sense they're being hunted especially hard and lie low?
"Usually, right before the Fourth of July they'll drop off and you can't find any," observed Larry Simns, longtime president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. Right now, though, he added, there seem to be plenty.
But some vendors say that they ran out earlier during other spikes in demand on Memorial Day weekend, Mother's Day and Father's Day.
"Fourth of July is going to be tough; it always is," said Mark Musterman, a seafood wholesaler in Stevensville. He says it's been a good year so far for crabs, but it started out slowly and he had trouble buying enough to satisfy Memorial Day weekend orders.
Steve Krause, manager of Riverside Crabs in Harford County, said he already has a stack of advance carryout orders for the holiday weekend. He warned that "if you don't place an order and try to walk in and get 'em, it's like a 50-50 chance we might be out."
Sit-down restaurants and carryout places often hedge their bets on Maryland crabs by importing some from the Carolinas and the Gulf of Mexico, where crabs can be harvested year-round.
At Buddy's Crabs and Ribs in Annapolis, for instance, owner Kevin Blonder reported he hasn't had to turn any customer away because he buys from a mix of local and out-of-state suppliers.
"Prices are high, but we didn't run out," Blonder said. Prices there range from $35 a dozen for small crabs to $65 for large and $80 for jumbos.
At Riverside in Harford, prices run from $32 a dozen for mediums to $72 a dozen for jumbos, and per bushel prices go from $160 for medium males to $230 for large males.
Crabs on the Eastern Shore tend to be cheaper. Clayton's in Cambridge is charging $110 per bushel for No. 1 males caught in the Choptank River, Brooks said. The business trimmed $10 off the price earlier this month.
And if consumers are willing to regulate their appetite, they can even take advantage of bargain-priced specials some vendors have been offering on slack weekdays. At Salty Dog's Crab House in Dundalk, for instance, crabs go for $1 or $2 apiece on Tuesdays, depending on their size.
Even on a slow weekday, there's a steady trickle of customers driving and walking up to Salty Dog's, a fixture on North Point Boulevard since 1995. Shawn Hartman, the owner, said he's had no trouble so far this year satisfying his clientele's yen.
"We had a pretty good run in springtime," said Hartman, a former waterman. Many local crabs are small or medium-sized right now, but he said he expects they'll get bigger later in summer, after they've molted, or shed their shells, one more time.
Beyond the vagaries of crab supply, dealers and restaurateurs for the past year or so have had to contend with a dip in demand, which they attribute to belt-tightening in the still sluggish economy. But Hartman said he's seeing an uptick in business, even though higher fuel prices this year have kept crab prices from coming down much, if any, from last year.
"The demand is coming back," he says. "This is a crab-eating town here in Dundalk. I think they'll buy crabs and a six-pack before they make their house payment."
"I could eat 'em every day," attested Joe Conway as he sat in Salty Dog's waiting for his crabs to be steamed. He was planning to tuck into some more at a neighbor's backyard barbecue on the 4th.
Asked if the prices haven't forced him to cut back a little, Conway just laughed. "Price doesn't matter. I'm 86 years old."