Crab Season: Nothing To Crab About


August 04, 1991|By ROB KASPER

From the steaming crab houses in Baltimore to the statisticians in Annapolis to the crab boats in the Chesapeake Bay, the message is the same. There is a mess of crabs out there.

The blue crabs have shown up in record numbers. They appeared early in April, when the harvest started, and have continued to be plentiful through the summer.

For eaters, the crab glut is a bonanza. It means plenty of crab meat at low prices. And for scientists, watermen and general speculators on why crabs do what they do, it is a somewhat of a puzzle.

Since this is a newspaper, right around now I have to wheel in some crab statistics from government agencies with initials. This will prove there is a glut of crabs. Here goes: Preliminary estimates by the DNR (Maryland Department of Natural Resources) say the crab catch this year could not only be higher than the catch of the last two years, but may also top the record year of 1985 when 51 million pounds of crab meat were landed in Maryland.

Since this is a column primarily devoted to eating, I can now deal with the most important angle of this story, the edible one. In brief, the crab glut means that an ideal Sunday supper of a couple dozen steamed crabs is cheap.

This word comes Ron Warren, manager of Sea Pride, a crab takeout operation that sits -- along with two his two competitors, Bay Island Seafood and Martini's -- on "Crab Corner," Pratt and Monroe in West Baltimore.

In addition to being one of the most aromatic corners of the city (you can smell the crab spices blocks before you get there), the TTC junction of Pratt and Monroe is among the most entrepreneurial intersections in town. Brightly lighted signs, the kind you usually see at fireworks stands, flash the going rate of a dozen steamed crabs. If you don't like crabs or the price at one place, you can walk a few steps across the street to see what the competition has to offer.

In addition to crustaceans, all manner of items are sold here. One Sunday last summer while I was down there waiting for an order of crabs, three different passersby of fered to sell me a necklace, a watch, and some sweat socks. I was tempted only by the socks.

This summer's glut of crabs means that competition on Crab Corner is even keener.

To keep his customers loyal, Warren at Sea Pride has taken to offering specials prices for large purchases.

"The $10-a-dozen crabs, I'm selling them two dozen for $16," said Warren earlier this week. "And two dozen of the the $12-a-dozen go for $20."

Not surprisingly, a phone check of Warren's neighbors, Bay Island and Martini's, found they too were offering the same discount.

"That $10 male crab is real nice crab," said Gary Moree, manager of Bay Island. He added that the price of crab can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. Crabs that run $10 a dozen in the plain-folks setting of Crab Corner bring $16 in the tonier climes of Towson, he said.

I heard several explanations on why there are so many crabs this summer. One that got widespread support was the warm-winter theory. The gist of it is that since recent winters have been mild, fewer crabs have died during the winter.

During the winter some crabs burrow in the mud of the bay. The last time there was a freeze strong enough to get down to bay mud was 1977. So according to the no-freeze-on-me theory, when the crabs emerge from the mud after a mild winter, there are more of them.

Supporters of this theory include David Laird, a Smith Island watermen who has been catching, or as he said "scraping," soft crabs since 1958, and Tom Horton, author of "Bay Country," a collection of essays on the Chesapeake Bay environment.

Since Horton was also co-author of a recent Chesapeake Bay Foundation report recommending various measures to save the oyster population, I also asked him why crabs were thriving while oysters were struggling.

He replied that, unlike oysters, crabs are mobile. When the waters become unhealthy, crabs can swim to a better neighborhood. As for disease, a problem with oysters, he said the short two-to three-year span of the crabs means they are gone before disease can become a factor in their lives.

Another explanation of the crab glut I liked was the "crabs as crafty teen-agers" theory of John R. McConaugha. That is my name for the theory. McConaugha, an associate professor of oceanography at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., used more scientific terms.

But, as he explained the theory to me, it goes something like this: Baby crabs are born, or spawned, down near the mouth of the bay. Then they journey into the ocean where they live offshore for 35 to 60 days. These days in the ocean are the teen-age years of the crabs. When these days are over, the crabs have to get themselves back into the bay. There they reside for the rest of their lives.

These transitions to the ocean and back to the bay are crucial, McConaugha said. If an ill wind or nasty storm pushes the fledging crabs off course, then a whole year, or "recruitment class," of crabs can be lost.

That hasn't happened lately, he said. Instead, the last few years the crabs, especially the recruitment class of 1989, were very successful in getting to and from the ocean. And those crafty teen-agers are now the big, numerous adults showing up in area crab houses.

So whether it's because of warm mud or crafty teen-agers, we can now celebrate nature's bounty. Pass the hammer.

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