In his 49 years as a crab packer. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Sterling can't remember a worse winter than the one just passed. The Chesapeake Bay was so frozen and the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] it piled so high that people here [WORD ILLEGIBLE] there was nothing between them and the North Pole except maybe one nearby town.
But he didn't feel the winter's harshest effects until the [WORD ILLEGIBEL]. The freeze had killed off the early blue crabs from Maryland and Virginia and made his [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] the first time. It was the first [WORD ILLEGIBLE] in July that Sterling's [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] Co., was in business five day a week.
"We will be fortunate we operate at a profit this year," he said.
Right now the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] predict it could still turn out [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] season, even normal despite the fact that the crab supply is [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] per cent now compared to [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] previous years. Crabbers say there are plenty of immature crabs that should reach legal size by mid-August.
But then, it's mostly [WORD ILLEGIBLE]. A crabber who delivered [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] of hard-shell crabs to Sterling last Monday brought in only [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] Wednesday.
"No one can explain the comings and goings of crabs," Sterling cautioned. "You ask five different crabbers and you get five different answers."
As mysterious as the blue crab's habits are to those who have fished them out of Chesapeake Bay all their lives, consumers are even more peculiar.
"When they can't get 'em, they want 'em, and they'll go any place and pay any price for 'em" said Bud Paolino of Bud's Crab House, a traditional Baltimore palace of crab eating. "Right row, crabs are plentiful and cheap and people are not eating them like they were when they were source."
But steamed crabs at Bud's cost from $8 to $15 a dozen now, depending on the size. In June they went as high as $18 at his place and even up to $24 a dozen at other restaurants.
In Ocean City at Philips' Crab House, steamed crabs cost from $7.25 to $9.95 a dozen now, about 10 per cent higher than last year. Owner Brice Philips says they are now smaller. Phioips sells 150-200 bushels of steamed crabs on a weekend plus other crabmeat dishes.
"What I hear is the big cities, like New York, have kept the prices up because they are willing to pay more for crabs, and they get the choice crabs because of it," said Hoss Harrington of Griffin's Seafood Market in Ocean City.
The popularity of the succulent blue crab - translated from its species name as "Beautiful swimmer" - is a boon to Maryland and its watermen whether the supply is scarce or plentiful. The crab industry is a way of life - not just a livelihood - to the watermen and is an important symbol for the state.
"When people think of Maryland they think of seafood and come here to get good seafood," said Margaret Cassell of Maryland Seafood Marketing Authority, a state service.
The Chesapeake Bay provides nearly half of the nation's blue crab supply and Maryland's share (second to Virginia's) more than doubled inearnings between 1970 and 1976. The number of crabs caught stayed about the same.
Here in Crisfield, which calls witself the "Seafood Capital of Maryland," watermen produce a respectable share of the annual catch - valued at $5.6 million for the state in 1976.
"A misconception of city folks is that these watermen are underprivileged, but ithis is a big business," said Gene Biggin, a marine police officer who until 1962 was a crabber himself.
"You can work as hard as you want and be your own boss," he said.
Riggin goes out daily into the bay with his partner, Eddie Pruitt, and checks the crabbers for any violations, asuch as taking crabs that are under the legal size limits. Even though he's on the other side of crabbing Riggin confessed, "I still love it. It never gets out of you."
The leathery-skinned watermen in Crisfield who go out in their boats at daybreak five or six days a week and return around noon can gross $50,000 to $70,000 annually (their costs are about half of that). Some live in $80,000 homes.
Here, the main crop is "peeler" crabs "paylers" they call them in their flat Eastern Shore drawl, the critters that molt into the soft-shell variety of which Maryland has a near monoply.
Early in the season, watermen like "Buster" Somers, who's been catching crabs for 30 years, were buying up the few hard carbs to be had. They paid $50 a bushel for "Jimmies," the males used to bait pots for the females that predominate in the soft crab catch.
Somers was lucky if he caught a half-bushed on those days in May. Now he pulls in 5 to 6 bushels daily. "There's been a steady rise in price in the last few years," he said contentedly.
They packers are having a harder time, Sterling, who holds a more enviable position than some packers because of the future runs one of two remaining crab houses on his particular island, which once had 10 plants where skilled women picked and packed the meat.
His fixed expense - including 80 cents a pound of picked meat in wages to the 25 unionized women who work for him - run $2.10 a pound, compared to $1.10 a pound in 1970. On top of that, he pays the watermen 17 1/2 cents a pound currently for the raw crabs. He sells the crab meat to wholesalers and retailers for from $3.75 a pound for claw meat to $6.25 a pound for backfin lump. Pasteurized crab meat is 25 to 50 cents more a can. It tastes the same but lasts for months when chilled.
Last Wednesday, he could get only $3.55 a pound in Baltimore for the "special" grade of meat, for which he was asking $4.25 a pound. Part of the problem is that merchants purchased crab meat anywhere they could get it when the shortage began in May, from North Carolina around the Gulf Coast to Texas.
"The competition from the southern states is a growing thing," Sterling said.
Apparently so is a brand new crab product in Maryland - the red crab. It is called "Big Red" by the man who discovered the species off the Atlantic Coast and has established the only red crab business in the sate
The red crab, caught off the ocean floor 65 miles offshore weighs up to 3 pounds - twice the size of the largest blue crab - and tastes more like lobster.
When Tom Holt started selling the crabs off the back of his fishing boat in Ocean City last year. "People asked, 'can you eat them,'" and all kinds of goofy questions," he said.
The third or fourth time his boat went out, a local newspaper wrote about the new crab, "and when we came back in, there were 150 to 200 people lined up at the dock with their ice chests waiting for the crabs," Holt said.
The "Big Reds" are catching on at crab houses as a supplement to the blue crab.They cost $1.25 to 1.50 steamed in a restaurant and can be caught year-round.
Margaret Cassell calls them the "poor man's lobster."
Holt is convinced he can sell all the he can get. On each 18-hour trip into the Atlantic his boat hauls in one to two tons of "Big Rees."
At Bud's Crab Houses in Baltimore, Bud Paolino said he can't keep them in stock. "It's something extra, for those people who don't go for blue crabs and prefer something like lobster," he said.
But there's nothing like a Maryland "blue," he added quickly, "As long as the blue crab is around, the red crab will never replace them," Paolino said.