Bay crab harvest offsets problems from Gulf oil spill

The oil rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico may have pinched the supply of big Louisiana blue crabs that some Maryland restaurants rely upon, but there's apparently been no shortage of crustaceans to steam, crack and pick this summer, as the Chesapeake Bay has produced its best harvest in years.

"We didn't need Louisiana crabs this year," said Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "We've got so many crabs now we can't sell them."

That's in part because "demand has been iffy" at times, said Jack Brooks, co-owner of the J.M. Clayton Co., a long-time seafood business in Cambridge that packs and ships 30,000 pounds of crabs and crabmeat daily from spring into fall. "Right now we've got more crabs than we need," Brooks said, and some seafood wholesalers have dropped the prices paid to watermen to as low as $12 per bushel for female crabs.

Crab houses and seafood restaurants — especially those that serve steamed crabs year-round — have come to depend upon the Gulf for their supply. Bay crabs normally don't show up in significant numbers until summer, and until recently the Chesapeake fishery had fallen on hard times, with harvests sliding to a record low in 2007 of 43.5 million pounds (or about 1.1 million bushels).

The Gulf, by contrast, is a major source of shrimp, oysters and crabs, supplying nearly one-fifth of all fish and shellfish caught in the United States last year. It yielded 59.3 million pounds, or nearly 1.5 million bushels, of crabs in 2009, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, with Louisiana supplying the vast bulk of it.

Even before the blowout and spill at BP's Deepwater Horizon, the crab catch from the Gulf had been depressed by an unusually cold winter and early spring. So when oil started gushing off the Louisiana coast, many Maryland seafood businesses worried that they'd lose their reliable Gulf crab connections — or wind up paying dearly for what they could get.

Their fears appeared warranted at first, as wide swaths of the Gulf were closed to fishing while light crude continued to pour out of the ruptured well throughout the summer. Meanwhile, BP contracted with many fishermen to use their boats in the oil cleanup, further limiting the catch, said Randy Pausina, assistant secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

At Gunning's Seafood Restaurant in Hanover, manager Cheryl Mullen said that while Louisiana and Texas usually supply "really good" large crabs, this summer her restaurant went totally local. Gulf crabs were "spotty at times," she said, while "Maryland was always there." Besides, she said, she found that Maryland crabmeat has a sweeter flavor than its imported competition.

In the last few weeks, she resumed buying some of the large Texas and Louisiana crabs that have been a staple at her restaurant.

Last month, Louisiana authorities began opening up fishing grounds east of the Mississippi River that had been closed for a good part of the summer, and approved resumption of fishing in more in-shore waters last week. More than 90 percent of state waters are now open.

"I'm hearing some pretty decent catches of crab are coming in right now," said Pausina, while acknowledging that the supply had been reduced through spring and summer.

Mark Musterman, a seafood wholesaler in Stevensville on Kent Island, said he never had trouble finding Gulf crabs to buy for his restaurant customers, mainly because his suppliers were west of the Mississippi River, which was not as affected by the oil gusher.

But Musterman said he stopped buying Louisiana crabs because the price shot up to $200 a bushel, and he had trouble selling them. He complained that Louisiana crab suppliers tried to capitalize on the disruption to the harvest in their waters by raising prices.

"People were sick and tired of paying me $225 a bushel," he said. "The economy wasn't that great." Musterman said he bought some crabs from Texas, and the rest from Eastern Shore watermen.

In Maryland, catch reports lag behind the actual harvest, but Lynn Fegley, assistant fisheries director for the state Department of Natural Resources, said, "From all reports, the harvest has been pretty good this year, really good."

Maryland watermen caught 28.5 million pounds of crabs last year, officials estimate, and the entire bay, including Virginia and the Potomac, yielded 53.9 million pounds.

That's 24 percent higher than the record-low catch recorded in 2007, which triggered tough fishing limits the following year to curtail the fall harvest of female crabs. Since then, scientists estimate, the bay's crab population has rebounded strongly, increasing 60 percent in the past year alone, based on a wintertime survey.

Fegley said catch reports for this year are still being analyzed, but they appear to be running ahead of last year's tally.

Watermen and seafood dealers say they have been facing a glut of bay crabs much of the summer, a trend that has depressed prices.

"Right now, crabbing is very good, and the supply is more than adequate," said Bill Sieling, executive director of the Maryland Seafood Industries Association. "Processors are processing all they can afford to process. Not that watermen are happy. They'd like to get more."

Simns said watermen are finding a plentiful harvest doesn't always boost their income.

"The price is so weak a lot of fellows aren't crabbing the way they were," said Simns. Buyers are paying up to $50 a bushel for large "Jimmies," or male crabs, but female crabs, the bulk of what's being caught by this time of year, are bringing as little as $12 per bushel.   

Brooks, the Cambridge crab processor, suggested that publicity about the Gulf spill, and fears that seafood from there would be contaminated may have dampened consumer demand for crabs from anywhere. Federal and Gulf state authorities say rigorous inspections have turned up no tainted catch.

But Simns blamed the lack of demand in part on the continuing high prices charged for crabs at many restaurants.

"The problem is, and we've seen this all year, the retailers haven't lowered their price to reflect the price we're getting for them," he said. "They kept the price the same as it was in the spring. People can't afford them high-priced crabs."

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