The blue crab harvest, which was dismal in April and May when the season began, appears to be improving.
Restaurants in the Chesapeake Bay region are reporting they have crabs to serve in September, and expect the run will continue until the season ends in early December.
Steve Vilnit, seafood marketing manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said chefs began reporting that crabbing picked up in late May and got strong in July — a much later start than usual.
That could mean, Vilnit said, that Marylanders and Virginians will eat local crab until Thanksgiving — a surprise in a region where the appetite for crabfests usually peaks around back-to-school time.
At Cantler’s Riverside Inn along Mill Creek in Annapolis, crabber Josh Hazen said about 75 percent of the crab they’re serving is caught in the local waters, with the rest coming from elsewhere in the United States. All of their crab cakes are made with local meat from Hooper’s Island.
It was harder to say that earlier in the summer, when families with out-of-town guests came in looking to show off the unique taste of Maryland blue crab. The best they could give the diners, Hazen said, was crabs caught in the Ocean City inlet — until May, when the iconic swimmers began showing up in the Chesapeake.
In early spring, Hazen said, “you’d fish 200 pots for a bushel and a half, and by the time you spend the money on the bait and fuel, you don’t make anything.” Now, he said, the crabbers are “not thriving, like three years ago, but we’re doing all right.”
Three years ago, it appeared the painful crab cuts that watermen endured in 2008 had paid off. The 2012 winter dredge survey, which counts crabs as they sleep at hundreds of locations in the Chesapeake, indicated 764 million crabs were in the water — about 66 percent more than had been counted in previous years. It was the highest level in 19 years, and it came after a very good year in 2011.
But crab populations have always swung wildly, depending on weather, available habitat and various facets of female reproduction that scientists still don’t understand. Cold weather kills crabs; unpredictable winds mean it’s uncertain how many baby crabs, known as megalope, will return from the spawning grounds near the ocean in Virginia.
2013 was not a good harvest year, and 2014 appeared even worse. The 2014 winter dredge survey confirmed managers’ fears that populations were at crisis levels: The abundance of spawning-age females had dropped to 69 million, below the established safe level of 70 million.
As a result, Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission enacted a 10 percent cut in the female harvest. Watermen have complained about the cuts, while some newspaper columnists said they didn’t go far enough and that the states needed to consider moratoriums. Virginia watermen suggested their own plan, an annual quota: Catch your limit and you’re done.
Whatever the next steps, Hazen said, Cantler’s is glad it has crabmeat now — even if it’s a bit out of sync with the public’s appetite for it.
“Usually this time of year,” he said, “people tend to forget about crabs.”