Chesapeake Bay crabs have been so plentiful this year — a 60 percent increase over last year, according to an annual population survey — that locals such as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) have cheered the bumper crop as a sign of good stewardship for the bay and its fisheries.
And yet market prices for blue crabs seemed barely to move at all.
Around the Fourth of July — when crabpicking reaches its peak — prices for premium male crabs known as jimmies were about as high or higher than they were last year, at $325 and up for a bushel.
Jimmy’s Famous Seafood in Baltimore — a restaurant that has been in a running feud with PETA over whether to eat crabs at all — was advertising Friday a price of $79 for a dozen crabs, dining in only.
So why are prices so high, if there are more crabs skittering around the bottom of the Bay than at any time since 2012?
The answer’s complicated. Depending on who’s talking, the reasons are normal market variations, market consolidation, fewer watermen, older watermen, stricter regulation of the catch and heavier-than-normal rainfall for much of the year. It’s also about the size of the crabs — this year’s population has many young’uns — and could have something to do with the blue catfish, an invasive species that eats just about everything in the ecosystem.
And yet by all accounts, there are a lot of blue crabs out there. In May, scientists from Maryland and Virginia released the annual estimate of the crab population that uses winter dredging data, saying there were nearly twice as many juvenile crabs in the Bay, compared with the year before.
All in all, the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee’s report estimated that the population had reached an estimated 594 million crabs, up from 372 million the year before. The survey suggested that the population was at the highest level since 2012.
Perhaps most important, the survey found that the number of females that had reached spawning age — which is key for a healthy fishery — has increased by 29 percent from the previous year, said Chris Moore, senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. He also said that for more than a decade now, the annual catch has fallen comfortably below the level that would raise concerns about overfishing, which had been a worry in the late 1990s.
“We’re in a pretty good place with crabs right now,” Moore said. “It was a good year all across the board in terms of a healthy population.”
And yet, those prices —
Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said he understands why people might think prices would fall if the crab population jumped by more than half. But Brown, who started crabbing back when a dozen of them went for 60 cents or so, said there’s a lot more to it.
“There’s plenty of crabs, the price should be easier because of this abundance of crabs,” Brown said. “But most of these crabs are juveniles, and they won’t be big enough until next season.”
A wet spring and early summer have poured so much freshwater into the bay that the creatures’ annual migration into the upper bay has been delayed, Brown said. And even if there were more crabs to catch, there are now fewer — and generally older — watermen out there catching them at a time when the regulations on their trade have intensified, also driving up prices at market.
“Unfortunately, the watermen don’t get those high prices,” said James Hudgins, who heads the Virginia Watermen’s Association. He said that if anything, market consolidation has depressed prices, at least for the watermen, because there seems to be less competition for the catch.
“We have so few big buyers. You’ve got about six or seven big buyers in the state of Virginia now because the market has condensed so much,” Hudgins said.
As if all that weren’t enough, the watermen are also competing with the blue catfish, an invasive species that eats crabs and just about anything else. The fish — which is native to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico — has spread into the Chesapeake’s watershed.
“They love everything. They eat crabs, they eat white perch, they eat shad, they eat herring, they eat menhaden, they eat spot, they eat rockfish,” Brown said.
But Cameron Manesh, owner of Cameron’s Seafood, said he thinks the prices have more to do with regular cycles in the market and the fishery. It’s worth nothing that this year’s 60 percent jump followed a shortage of crabs last year, he said.
“It’s up 60 percent from a drought,” Manesh said. “Last year, we had a limited number of crabs. So we paid a lot higher last year than we are now.”
Yet Manesh, too, said things should change soon for the better, from the consumer’s point of view.
“The crabs are there,” Manesh said. “It’s just early.”