End of the season of our discontent

Crabs: During a year of scant harvests, seafood restaurants search high and low to find the crustaceans their customers crave.

September 03, 2000|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

While the summer of 2000 will make the record books for Maryland's dismal crab catch, those who dine on the succulent chunks of backfin, lump and claw meat are smashing the bad news with their wooden mallets.

"I know they're from Texas," said Roland C. Murphy, a Mays Chapel resident who pounded and cleaned his way through a $32 dozen at Bo Brooks Crab House yesterday afternoon in Canton. "They were good and full, and there wasn't a bad one in the bunch."

"People will pay the price," said his wife, Mary Murphy. "Especially at this time of the year."

Maryland's crab harvest this year is about a third lower than average. The take in July was the lowest in local waters since the state began keeping records in 1993. State officials are considering crabbing restrictions next year.

"Maryland crab meat has been very tight this summer," said Bill Klemkowski, the Baltimore-born owner of Jake's Seafood House in Rehoboth Beach, Del. "The quality of it was the worst I've seen in the 14 years I've been in business."

Like others who have insulated themselves from fluctuations in the volatile Maryland seafood industry, he has not allowed the short supply to affect his business. He gets his crab meat -- about 1,000 pounds a week -- from dealers in the Carolinas. And that supply has been generally available throughout the summer.

The biggest single casualty of the Maryland seafood menu is the soft-shell, a just-molted crab taken from waters before a new shell hardens. Because it is largely a local delicacy, the crabs are mainly caught -- or farmed -- on the Eastern Shore.

"There was a point in July that ran four weeks when our suppliers from Cambridge and St. Michael's could not supply us," said restaurateur Klemkowski. "We took them off the menu temporarily."

"It's been a horrendous year for soft crabs," said Warren Stein, owner of Maryland Crab and Oyster Inc. in the Eastern Shore's Stevensville.

He has watched crabbers pull up to the wharf throughout the summer with light catches of hard crabs.

"On a normal September day, my crabbers would come in with 10 bushels on their boats," Stein said. "Today they are coming in with two and a half."

Maryland's crab shortage has forced restaurateurs to look elsewhere for their supply -- the Carolinas or the Gulf of Mexico.

"I call them airport crabs," seafood dealer Stein said. "The restaurant people line up at [Baltimore-Washington International] by the Southwest Airlines terminal and wait to see if their crabs are coming."

Although the number of crabs caught in Maryland's rivers and creeks has dropped this summer, restaurant owners say that has not affected the price at the table.

"Crab meat prices have remained steady throughout the summer," said Kristin Olsson, manager of Bo Brooks. "We have not had any trouble with our supply from Texas or Louisiana."

To show how bad the Maryland situation is, she said that in a good year she would get a shipment of fresh crabs five or six times a week from the Eastern Shore's Wye and Miles rivers, both widely regarded in the seafood industry for the excellence of their hard crabs.

"Only three or four times this year did we get crabs from there," Olsson said.

In Baltimore County's Parkville, a bushel of the top-sized male crabs known as "No. 1s" -- supposed to measure six inches across the bluish-green shell -- sold yesterday for $150 a bushel, a price that normally would be as much as one-third or a half lower were the local supplies more plentiful.

"It's been a bad year, " said J.R. Van Horn, an employee of Jerry D's Seafood in the 7800 block of Harford Road. "But people are still paying the price."

Some crab house owners thought the news stories about the relative scarcity of Maryland crabs only stimulated their customers' appetites.

"We've been fully booked for the last eight weeks," said John Oals, who works at Gabler's Shore Restaurant on the Bush River in Harford County. "I couldn't survive if I had to rely on local crabs."

Like other crab house owners, he uses non-Maryland crabs.

"The majority of the Maryland crabbers have given up and are getting ready for oyster and clams."

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