“How are you doing?”
He threw his hands up in the air and then let them fall.
“They ain’t no crabs here. Ain’t no crabs up the bay. Ain’t no crabs down the bay. They just ain’t no crabs.”
In a few hours, he had barely topped one basket. He hoped to fill another basket before going in for the day but clearly he expected pickings to be scarce. Even at $150 a bushel for No. 1 crabs – at least five and a half inches, hard, and no whities – the cost of fuel and bait makes it tough for watermen to make much money when crabs are this hard to catch.
And so it goes for the summer of 2021.
Back in the spring, scientists released the results of their winter dredge survey. Over the past couple of decades, that survey of more than 100 locations up and down the Chesapeake, in Maryland and Virginia, has generated fairly reliable predictions of the crabbing season ahead.
This year the survey showed fewer juvenile crabs in the system than last year.
“Not every year is a bumper year,” said one mid-Bay buyer this week. “Last year demand was good and so was supply and we were paying half as much as we are this year. What’s that tell you? Those juvenile crabs are the ones we should have been seeing in July but there just weren’t as many. Lots of little ones. But things are starting to pick up. Really, it’s about normal.” Normal, but not a bumper year
A report from a crabber down around Crisfield confirmed the scarcity as did a report from the upper Bay, north of Rock Hall.
Meanwhile, some Eastern Shore restaurants have taken crabs and crab cakes off their menus because prices are so high and supply unpredictable. Demand for crabmeat, a top of the line seafood, always seems to be high.
As if on cue though, peeler tanks at operations up and down the Bay are starting to fill. Trotliners and potters bring in peelers for shedding operations along creeks up and down the various rivers. Those peelers will be shedding their old shells and becoming soft crabs, about thirty percent larger than they were before their slough.
Lights burning all night long above shallow, white, plastic tanks, replenished with a steady flow of creek water in and out, signal the run is on. Men and women check the tanks every four hours around the clock to fish out freshly shed crabs before they start to harden. Then they get cleaned and packed for fresh and frozen markets.
“If you don’t see peeler crabs in the tanks in August,” said one waterman, “you might as well move. Something’s wrong if that happens. But that’s not the case. We’re getting them now like we always do.”
Richard Higgins, who sloughs peeler crabs in Neavitt, agreed that the peeler crab run is about on schedule. ‘It’s August and they’ll go strong for about a month. It’s night and day, seven days a week, but it doesn’t last too long. You get used to it. You catch your sleep when you can.”
He agreed too that crabs go through their cycles. “Nature and God have their way,” he said. “You have to understand that. Not much you can do about it. Crabs are kind of like fruit trees. Some years they bear better than other years.”
The little crabs being seen now will go through a couple more sheds this year, meaning the size of hard crabs should pick up as the summer moves on into fall. A lot of the bigger crabs from earlier in the season have either died now or been caught up, said one waterman.
“Just like everything else, they don’t live forever.”
Dennis Forney grew up on the Chester River in Chestertown. After graduating Oberlin College, he returned to the Shore where he wrote for the Queen Anne’s Record Observer, the Bay Times, the Star Democrat, and the Watermen’s Gazette. He moved to Lewes, Delaware in 1975 with his wife Becky where they lived for 45 years, raising their family and enjoying the saltwater life. Forney and Trish Vernon founded the Cape Gazette, a community newspaper serving eastern Sussex County, in 1993, where he served as publisher until 2020. He continues to write for the Cape Gazette as publisher emeritus and expanded his Delmarva footprint in 2020 with a move to Bozman in Talbot County.