Already suffering from a poor oyster season, Maryland and Virginia Eastern Shore watermen and seafood distributors are predicting a ruinous crab season as the recession eats away at middle-income dollars spent on seafood.

"The way it is now, you can't get anything. It's starvation around here," veteran Deal Island waterman Clifton Benton said.

While watermen working the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries expect a banner crab harvest this season, they fear that an already depressed East Coast seafood market will be glutted.

Blaming inflation and unemployment for weakening the market, Dorchester County waterman Donald Pritchett said "we're going to suffer on account of people being unemployed." Pritchett, who has worked as a waterman for half a century, explained that middle-income workers "are the ones who eat crabs."

Clayton Brooks, the president of one of Maryland's largest seafood packing companies, J. M. Clayton Co., in Cambridge, added, "There's not going to be the demand for crabs this year. I believe the people have money, but they are saving it in case they lose their jobs."

Considered a gourmet food and a major Maryland and Virginia seafood product, crab meat is one of the first items scratched off family grocery lists and passed by on restaurant menus when cash is tight.

Unless the economic situation changes, many Maryland watermen fear that defaults on bank loans used to upgrade work boats will surge, throwing men out of work and banks to the brink of insolvency.

Unlike past years, bank loan applications from watermen are down dramatically. A Crisfield, Md., bank official said watermen are "leery on interest rates and leery on paying back."

In Washington and New York City, the watermens' fears already are coming true, seafood distributors said. The New York crab market has been closed for several days this week, Brooks said. Prices there for softshelled crabs are down 60 percent from this time last year.

The past oyster season, which ended a month ago, cost watermen thousands of dollars when unusually cold temperatures froze oyster beds.

When Maryland's seafood market has been sluggish, the state has attempted to sell seafood in Midwestern and Southern markets through promotions staged by the Office of Seafood Marketing. However, budget cutters have slashed the office's funding and staff by more than 60 percent in the past year.

Add to that a bumper crop, as expected, and watermen fear the worst. Benton, who just poured $15,000 into sprucing up his skipjack, said "we'll have to be satisfied with what we get"--and that means little as skyrocketing operating costs continue to gobble up profits.

Deal Island seafood distributor Jesse Thomas, who's been a waterman for 55 years, said the crab season "is going to be worse than in the Depression."