It's going to cost you a bushel to put a couple dozen of those tasty large, steamed crabs on the dinner table tonight.
A shortage of crabs along the East Coast -- described by some dealers as the worst they've seen in 15 years or more -- is forcing shoppers to pay $150, even $165, for a bushel of blues that sold for as little as $65 a year ago.
"Crab meat, it's like buying gold," Tom Quillen, a buyer at Phillips Crab House in Ocean City, said yesterday. The wholesale "price jumped $3 to $3.50 a pound last week alone, and you were lucky if you could get any," he said.
At retail outlets, consumers are paying $15 for back fin that cost between $7 and $8 last year, according to Virgil Wilson, a buyer at Sea Pride, a popular West Baltimore crab house.
At Giant supermarkets in the Baltimore area, pasteurized back-fin crab meat was priced at $21.99 yesterday for a one-pound container.
In some cases customers couldn't get crabs at any price. Phillips' Ocean City restaurant ran out of crabs Sunday evening.
Suppliers blame the shortage on unusual weather patterns that have hit almost the entire harvesting area from Louisiana to New England. They say cool ocean winds have kept water temperatures low, limiting the movement of crabs and keeping them out of the crabbing pots.
"It's been warm, cold, warm, cold all spring," George W. McManus, owner of J.J. McDonnell Co. Inc., a seafood wholesaler at the Wholesale Fish Market in Jessup. "I don't know where the crabs go when it's cold," he said, "but they don't go to the crabbers' crab pots."
Pollution does not seem to be a factor. A spokesman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said he was unaware of any such problems in the harvesting areas that would account for the shortage.
A dozen medium-size males that sold for $12 last Memorial Day weekend cost $20 at the Carney Crab House on Joppa Road. The cost of a larger crab jumped from $18 to $25.
Joe Zacharski, owner of the Carney Crab House, said the supply situation is worse this year than in any he can remember in more than 30 years.
In normal years, he said, one harvest area might be slow but that slack would be picked up by a good harvest in another state.
"North Carolina might be slow, but Louisiana would be heavy. But this time, harvesting has been slow in all areas," Mr. Zacharski said.
"I'm a crab person," explained Pat Little, as she willingly hande$12 over the counter at Sea Pride for a dozen females that might have cost her $7 last year. "I'll go whatever the market demands," she said, "up to a certain extent."
"We're not trying to rip you off," Paul Wilson, a salesman at Sea Pride, told Ms. Little, as he held a pair of crustaceans covered with seasoning. "Our costs have really skyrocketed since last year."
At Bud Paolino's on East Lombard Street, Joseph Bush, the restaurant's vice president, said he could have sold 25 or 30 more bushels over the holiday weekend if he had had them. The restaurant ran out of crabs Monday evening.
A sampling of crab prices in the Baltimore area.
Restaurant .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Now.. .. .. .. year
Bud Paolino's, East Lombard St.
Dozen large crabs .. .. .. .. .. .. $40 .. .. .. .. $32
All-you-can-eat 6special .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. $17 .. .. .. .. $9
Phillips Crab House, Ocean City
Dozen medium crabs .. .. .. .. .. ..$15 .. .. .. .. $13
Sea Pride, Pratt and Monroe Sts.
Backfin crab meat,
per pound.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. $15 .. .. .. .. $8
Carney Crab House, Carney
Bushel of crabs .. .. .. .. .. .. ..$150 .. .. .. .. $60
Dozen female crabs .. .. .. .. .. .. $15 .. .. .. .. $9
Dozen male crabs .. .. .. .. .. .. ..$20 .. .. .. .. $12
HD ' BEAUTIFUL SWIMMERS' BECOME DEARER
Weather patterns blamed for dearth of crabs.