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Maryland's strong crab harvest having little impact on restaurant prices

Crab population is up, but prices remain steady.

Maryland watermen are reporting a robust blue crab harvest in the Chesapeake Bay this summer — but it's not necessarily reducing prices for diners at restaurants and crab shacks.

Male crabs are selling for $30 to $95 per dozen, depending on size, at Baltimore-area crab houses and seafood carryouts.

That's similar to last year, even though watermen and state officials say the harvest is up.

"Theoretically, you probably should be paying less," said Bill Sieling, director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association. But "retailers will sell for the price they can get."

The bay's blue crab population is subject to factors as varied as water currents, winter temperatures and levels of oxygen in the water. Add crabs' short life span — two to three years — and population dynamics can swing quickly from one year to the next.

Waterman Blair Baltus fishes 900 crab pots set out between Middle and Bush rivers. He's catching more large crabs than usual, he said, but about the same amount of medium crabs and fewer light crabs.

The large males he's catching, he said, are "top-shelf" quality.

Like many watermen, Baltus has theories about why the crab population is strong: A mild winter meant more survived, and expanding fields of underwater grasses are improving water quality.

But even after more than 30 summers of crabbing, he can't say for sure.

"These crabs have been studied to death," Baltus said. "I can tell you a few things: They swim. They bite. They taste good. They magically appear. They magically disappear."

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources regulates the crab catch, but officials say they don't have data yet to back up anecdotal reports of a good harvest. Most watermen file harvest reports by hand each month and mail them to Annapolis to be compiled. Only a minority use a newer electronic reporting system.

But Brenda Davis, head of the department's blue crab program, said watermen tell her "it seems like there are some crabs everywhere, so most everybody is having a good season."

"Harvest is up pretty much everywhere throughout the state," said Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "We're having a good season, and the market is holding up pretty good."

Crab prices are determined by multiple factors as well, including demand from consumers, costs for watermen and the price of out-of-state crabs coming into the local market.

Watermen say it's a good year — but not good enough to cause a significant drop in prices.

Neal Gaffney, who catches crabs for his family's carryout in Highlandtown, said expenses seem to go up every year, making it difficult to reduce prices even when the harvest is strong. Fuel is cheaper this year, he said, but bait costs more.

The prices for male crabs at Gaffney's range from $30 per dozen for small crabs to $95 per dozen for jumbos — the same prices as last summer, he said.

"It's a balancing act to maintain profitability but not to drive the customer away because they can't afford it," Gaffney said. "Because then it's worth nothing."

At Salty Dog's Crab House in Dundalk, the price of a dozen male crabs ranges from $35 to $95.

"It's not a cheap price, but it's not overpriced," said owner Shawn Hartman, a former waterman.

Hartman said some customers got their hopes up for less expensive crabs after the state reported in the spring that the crab population was up.

But for prices to drop drastically, he said, "you need a glut of crabs, and you're not seeing that. It's a fair amount of crabs, but it's not an overload of crabs."

Hartman buys crabs both from local watermen and from North Carolina, where crabs cost a little less but shipping costs are greater.

Some restaurants have been able to reduce their prices slightly.

Cantler's Riverside Inn near Annapolis is selling crabs for about 10 percent to 15 percent less than at this point last year, said Dan Donnelly, the restaurant's general manager.

"Since supply is so much greater, I can afford to lower the price," he said.

Cantler's is now getting about 60 percent of its crabs locally, up from the usual 40 percent.

At Mike's Crab House restaurants in Riva and Pasadena, owners have seen savings from slightly lower wholesale prices.

Tony Piera, whose family owns Mike's, said his price for Maryland crabs has dropped from about $170 per bushel to $140. The restaurant still purchases most of its crabs out of state, he said, and crabbers in Louisiana and Texas also have dropped their prices.

Going into the season, there were signs that the Chesapeake Bay crab population was in good shape.

Each winter, biologists dredge crabs from the bay's mud to estimate the total population. This winter's survey indicated a 35 percent increase in the population.

The increase was seen for both males and females — which bodes well for this fall's female spawning run.

For the past several years, the Department of Natural Resources has regulated the crab harvest more closely — limiting the commercial catch of females, for example, and banning recreational crabbers from taking any at all — in hopes of boosting their numbers.

Davis said the regulations seem to be working, but cautioned that limiting the harvest is only one way to ensure a healthy population. Weather in particular plays a role, influencing the survival of crab larvae in the southern portion of the bay in the fall and contributing to deaths in the winter.

"Mother Nature plays a huge part," Davis said. "The best we can do is give her the resources to work with. There's lots of other factors that come into play that need to happen for all of it to work."

The commercial crabbing season ends in December, so it's too early to say how watermen will fare financially. A tropical storm or major algae bloom between now and the end of the season could disrupt the crabs, and therefore the harvest.

Prices could fall after Labor Day, when demand falls for the "basket trade" — crabs sold to restaurants and crab shacks. That reduction often happens just as many crab lovers say the crustaceans are at their heaviest and sweetest.

Davis wants to plant a seed in consumers' minds to spur fall sales: crab feasts and football.

"The tailgating crab feast ought to be the new hot ticket for Maryland in the fall," she said. "We really do have nice crabs, and the market doesn't tend to be as strong then."

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Ben Weathers contributed to this article.

pwood@baltsun.com

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