Shelling out for crabs Early season bust: Hopes nurtured for late summer surge in bay's bounty.

July 21, 1996

NOW IS THE time when lots of Marylanders assess the quality of their summer, not by the weather or the performance of the Orioles but by the supply and price of blue crabs.

The quirky catches of the early season are past, the crabbing season for commercial and recreational fishermen is well under way, and the eating season is near its peak. Summer and steamed crabs have long been an indivisible combination around the Chesapeake Bay.

This summer, Maryland watermen and consumers are singing the blues. Catches in the first months are less than half recent averages. Crabs in seafood stores and restaurants have been smaller than usual, with higher prices to boot. Crab feasts have been postponed in hopes of savoring the succulence of a late summer surge from the bay.

That late season population explosion may well happen. Young crabs are reported in great profusion in the bay, and should grow beyond the 5-inch-wide minimum for catchable hardshell crabs by late August. Whether watermen can make up profits from that delayed surplus will be a matter of market demand.

Maryland's new measures to curtail crabbing, by banning fishing one day a week and ending the season a month early in November, are less strict than last fall's emergency regulations, which helped to reduce the season's haul by 10 percent. These curbs aim to relieve the increased fishing pressures on blue crab stocks.

But weather and other natural conditions are still the primary limiters of crab catches. A harsh winter apparently killed off large numbers of the bigger adult crabs, so the early edible supplies have been disappointing. The smaller young mostly survived the cold, the heavy thaw floods and the strong summer rainstorms that altered water conditions of the bay.

There are still concerns about overfishing and about the recent losses of underwater grasses necessary for crab nurseries. The meager take of legal-size crabs has also encouraged illegal trade in smaller crabs: more than 400 citations have been issued by Maryland so far this year for possession of undersize blues.

Pub Date: 7/20/96

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