Maybe it's time to cover the picnic table with newspapers, invite the family over and have that crab feast you couldn't afford over Memorial Day weekend.
Crab prices have dropped in recent weeks -- by as much as $68 a bushel in at least one case -- according to a spot check of retailers and wholesalers around the state.
Al Strzegowski of Al's Seafood on Eastern Boulevard in Middle River perhaps best summed up the current crab market yesterday when he said:"They're not cheap, but they are at least affordable."
Reports of crabs selling for $150 a bushel -- and higher -- during the Memorial Day weekend apparently persuaded many crab lovers to shy away in the hope that prices eventually would be more in line with their budgets.
Bill Sieling, chief of seafood marketing for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said that crab houses throughout Maryland have reported sharp declines in sales in recent weeks. The wait seems to be paying off. A bushel of large No. 1 males that was selling for $150 at the Carney Crab House four weeks ago can be toted home today for just $82.
In some cases, the prices are even lower, prompting Mr. Sieling to warn consumers that it might be wise to shop around. He suggested that shoppers check with wholesalers. Some might be willing to sell crabs by the bushel for the same or only slightly higher prices that they charge their regular customers
At Al's Seafood, a bushel of No. 1 males cost $72. Mr. Strzegowski said this compares with $49 this time last year, when crabs were more plentiful, and $70 in 1990, a more typical season.
Paul Wilson at Sea Pride, a West Baltimore crab house, said the price of No. 1 males, 6 inches and bigger, is $90 a bushel, $50 for a half bushel.
For those who buy crabs by the dozen, he said, the large crabs that cost $32 over the Memorial Day weekend now sell for $28. The price of mediums has dropped from $20 to $16. This time last year, he said the price of medium crabs was probably $12 to $14 a dozen.
George W. McManus, owner of J. J. McDonnell Co. Inc., a seafood wholesaler at the Wholesale Fish Market in Jessup, said the supplyhas improved in recent weeks but is still short of demand.
Mr. McManus said the wholesale price has dropped $5 this week for what he called the "true No. 1's." Just before Memorial Day, he said, he was selling these crabs for $75 to $80 a bushel and his price hasdropped to $55 to $60. A year ago, they cost $45 to $50.
It's supply and demand, wholesalers and retailers say in explaining the price swings, but nature is also a factor.
"We tell our customers that prices should drop even more in the next few weeks," Mr. Wilson said, "but that's up to Mother Nature. If there's a hard rainstorm or cool weather, crabs could still be in short supply."