Pasadena waterman C.J. Canby and his crew of three pulled up their crab pots early Wednesday and for the most part found a healthy catch.
“Oh boy,” Canby exclaimed as they hoisted one of the wire cages out of the Chesapeake Bay near the mouth of the Patapsco River. “That’s a $100-a-dozen crab.” It measured 8¼ inches across.
Every so often, a trap came up empty. Canby assumes it’s because recent rain, wind and waves knocked the crab pot on its side, preventing crustaceans from sidestepping their way inside.
Ahead of Hurricane Florence, he’s working to put more of his pots in deeper waters and on muddy terrain, where they’re less likely to be disturbed.
As Florence churns toward the East Coast, watermen such as Canby are preparing for yet another challenge from Mother Nature in a year of frequent flooding that carries surges of trash and debris with it. In the lower Chesapeake, where the hurricane’s threat is greater, many are pulling their traps from the water altogether rather than risk them getting lost or damaged as waves drag them.
“When it rolls on that bottom, it comes up almost like a basketball,” said Joe Hayden, Dorchester County waterman who crabs in waters off St. Mary’s County. “When you’ve got 900 pots in the water, you’re talking about a lot of money.”
Florence is forecast to strike the Carolinas on Friday with winds exceeding 130 mph and as much as 30 or 40 inches of rain in some spots. Its impact was forecast to be less severe in Maryland.
Officials warned that even 3 to 6 inches of rain, possible in parts of the Mid-Atlantic, could cause flooding because streams are already high and the ground saturated.
Hayden says he has no choice but to take Florence seriously. In one storm 15 or 16 years ago, 55 mph winds swept away 300 of his crab pots — then worth about $7,500 — and a $10,000 net.
“You can’t afford to lose that,” he says.
It has already been a trying season for crabbers.
Eastern Shore seafood processing companies are without a third of their normal workforce because of increased competition for foreign guest worker visas, meaning they can’t afford to buy as many of the smaller and female crabs that get picked of their meat. In the Baltimore area, federal regulators are allowing fewer carryout restaurants to accept food stamps, limiting demand for crabs in an important segment of the marketplace for some crabbers.
And then there’s the weather. Crab season started slowly as cold temperatures lingered into late spring, and then flooding came in late May and early June. A period of developing drought followed before flooding rains resumed in July and August and continued this month.
Rainstorms are problematic for the industry because they can prevent watermen from venturing out on the bay on some days and because they reduce the water’s salinity, which can affect crab growth and migration patterns.
Typically, by this time of year, many crabs would have migrated to upper portions of the bay, but because the water is so fresh, they have stayed farther south.
“Most days I’ve got to go all the way down to Sandy Point,” said Canby, who is based in Pasadena.
For now, the catch is good. Canby’s crew collects almost a bushel of crabs from each of a dozen rows of crab pots near the mouth of the Patapsco, and he is hoping Marylanders’ appetite for them doesn’t dwindle too fast as fall approaches.
“We’re still catching crabs, and they’re the best and the biggest of the year,” he says.
Florence, however, could again make his job more difficult.
“When a northeast wind comes barreling down here, this is a hard bottom, so they just slide,” he says of his crab pots.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources told watermen it would not enforce time limits on commercial crabbing Tuesday and Wednesday, giving them time to continue harvesting before the storm comes while also rushing to get their equipment out of the water.
Around the middle of Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake, waterman Chuckie White is watching the weather nervously, but he’s looking north, not south.
“I’m more worried about the Conowingo Dam opening up a bunch of gates,” White said. July and August rain sent plumes of sediment down the bay, along with tons of wood and other detritus, and he’s worried Florence’s remnants could wash another load of junk downstream from Pennsylvania and New York.
This week, he is shifting his crab pots to the east, away from the main stem of the bay and another potential surge of pollution.
“The crabs will run from it,” he says. “They won’t stand in muddy water. It’ll suffocate them.”
Several of the Conowingo’s floodgates were open Wednesday, and more were expected to be opened amid persistently rainy weather this week, said Lacey Dean, a spokeswoman for Exelon Corp., the dam’s owner.
For now, it’s too early to say where Florence will go after striking the Carolinas. It is forecast to stall over the Southeast and then potentially toward the Tennessee and Ohio valleys next week.
Watermen are used to forced optimism, always hoping for the best. With Florence, it’s no different, but they’re also following advice to prepare for the worst.
“I hope we’re doing all this for nothing,” Hayden says. “I really do.”