High demand and inflated prices could make it a tough season for the hard-shell crab industry in Virginia, officials said.

Demand over Memorial Day weekend sent prices soaring to $50 per bushel on the Richmond retail market, although most Northern Neck crabbers received less than half that amount.

Middlemen trying to take advantage of inflated prices in northern cities have created uncertainty about prices, said William Walls, a Virginia Marine Resources Commission inspector.

Some crabbers might be taking inconsistent catches to test the market in an attempt to keep prices high, he said.

But recent rains and winds made it difficult for crabbers to work. Walls said the shortfall might be used by watermen to see how the market reacts to a sudden drop in supply after the high-demand holiday weekend.

The most severe inflationary pressure might be from Baltimore and Washington buyers willing to pay as much as $75 per bushel for crabs that have not even reached full size.

"Crabs haven't moved far enough up the [Chesapeake] Bay for Maryland crabbers to catch them yet, and a lot of Virginia houses are selling to Baltimore," said Walls.

"Baltimore is a crab town," he said. "They'd eat a crab up there no matter where it came from or what it cost."

Apparently the same craze for crabs applies to many Washingtonians, said Northern Neck watermen.

"Clientele in and around Washington and Northern Virginia have higher incomes than anywhere else we sell to," one wholesaler said. "We can get our best price there because they have the money to pay."