OCEAN CITY – There is mixed feelings in the air on the supply of blue crabs this season — some crab houses are saying they have no problem while others are remaining optimistic while they wait for the crustaceans to come out of hiding.
In April, Gov. Martin O’Malley announced the Chesapeake Bay’s juvenile blue crab population is at the highest level on record and the overall blue population is at its highest level since 1993.
A survey conducted by the DNR estimated 764 million crabs spent this winter in the Chesapeake Bay, nearly 66 percent more than last year. Juvenile crabs reached a record high of 587 million, nearly triple last year’s 207 million. The previous record of 512 million was set in 1997.
While that surely considered good news, many local crab houses do not rely on Chesapeake blue crabs to meet the tremendous demand in the Ocean City area for the sweet taste of blue crab meat.
Currently, The Crab Bag co-owner Albert Levy reports that crabs are hard to come by.
Levy explained that good crabs are in shedding season right now, meaning there is large portion of crabs with soft shells that are not caught for crab feasts.
“I predict that after they shed and harden up there will be a lot of crabs but as far as being big crabs, no that is always hard to get,” he said. “There will be a lot of small crabs, tons, probably more than they’ve seen in many, many years. The crab supply is there it is just the size and weight of them that is the problem.”
Levy furthered that the Choptank River started out producing a good number of crabs this season but quickly fell short.
“They will be back very soon, and I am looking forward to it,” he said. “The best time to buy crabs is September. They are in their growing stage, and they shed, and then they mate and hibernate. Before they hibernate, they fatten up and are full of meat.”
Currently, The Crab Bag is pulling its supply of crabs from the Choptank River, Chesapeake Bay, the Carolinas and the Gulf of Mexico, but lately that just hasn’t been cutting it. Levy said he has had to stop the sale of bushels the last few weekends to keep up with what was being sold in house.
With the height of the summer here, Levy was unsure of what The Crab Bag would end up with but said he will be pulling from every supplier he can to meet the robust demand.
“Our job is to weed out all the junk so that our customer gets the best quality, that’s what we do,” he said. “So it is real difficult. As far as super quality that’s what I want and we’ll have it but not as much as I want.”
Shrimp Boat owner Joe Crocetti also said the crabs have not been plentiful so far this season, mostly local crabs, as well as in the Carolinas.
“As far as size and quality, they’re fine, there are just not a lot of them,” he said. “I am hoping it is going to turn around and there are signs showing that the catch is starting to increase so I suspect the volume to go up by mid-July.”
Higgins South Manager Tim Hensley said he has been satisfied with the supply of good size crabs.
Higgins receives most of its its crab supply from the local waterways, the Choptank River and Chesapeake Bay as well.
“We take what we can get but we think crabs are running pretty well,” he said.
Bahama Mamas on Wicomico Street Manager Ron Ricks said they also have had no problem having their supply meet their demand, having all sizes delivered.
“We are pretty much right on all the time,” he said.
The DNR survey results did sound one cautionary note, which was a decline in the number of spawning-age females from 190 million to 97 million crabs. Despite the downturn, the population remains above the safe threshold level. Preliminary estimates of the 2011 female harvest are below the target of 25.5 percent, again confirming that management measures have continued to be effective at constraining the fishery to appropriate levels.
Maryland’s management system of daily catch limits and closed periods is designed to adapt and ensure that annual crab harvests stay balanced with annual shifts in abundance.
Estimates of abundance are developed separately for young of the year crabs, mature female crabs, and adult male crabs. Together, these groups of crabs will support the 2012 fishery and produce the next generation of crabs.
DNR and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science have conducted the primary assessment of the Bay’s blue crab population annually since 1990. The survey employs crab dredges to sample blue crabs at 1,500 sites throughout the Chesapeake Bay from December through March. Sampling during winter when blue crabs are usually buried in the mud and stationary, allows scientists to develop, with good precision, estimates of the number of crabs present in the Bay.
Through a historic collaboration in 2008, Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission took strong coordinated action to reduce harvest pressure on female crabs by 34 percent. At that time, scientists from all three jurisdictions deemed conservation measures necessary as blue crabs suffered near historic lows in spawning stock.