Crabs aplenty in the bay

Finding claws for optimism

Beginning of the season was slow, but Chesapeake watermen now enjoy a good harvest

September 20, 2005|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

Suburban commuters were still snoozing yesterday as William "Billy" Crook steered his work boat out of Whitehall Creek toward a gauzy pink sunrise near the Bay Bridge.

Crook, a waterman for three decades now, slowly tacked south toward Annapolis, ignoring the scenery and the waterfront mansions. He was already focused on the bushels of crabs to be hauled from 600 wire pots strung on 22 lines in a watery eight-mile tract he has worked off and on for years.

This year, the crab season started off slowly with too-cold temperatures in April, May and what seemed like half of June. But since then, Crook and many of his fellow crabbers - a skeptical bunch by nature - say that the skittery crustaceans seem to be following the script written by the state's Department of Natural Resources, which predicted last winter that crabs would be fairly plentiful in the Chesapeake this season.

"I think what we're seeing means that you can still make a career on the water," said Crook, 47. "It's pretty good out here. Everybody seems happy right about now."

Bay crab harvests have fluctuated sharply over the 75 years the state has kept track. Last year, watermen reported catching more than 32 million pounds of crab meat - the highest total in five years, but far below harvests in the 1980s. The worst year ever was 1968, with a catch of 10 million pounds.

This year's totals might be the best of both worlds, with watermen happy about the late-season surge but environmentalists hopeful that the cold spring will limit the overall harvest.

"Even in a bad year, there are billions, sometimes hundreds of billions of little crabs," said Don Boesch, president of the University of Maryland's Center for the Environment. "It's never gotten to the point where crabs were endangered, but what's crucial is that [enough] crabs survive to reproduce."

For Billy Crook, what's crucial right now is catching enough crabs to make a living.

Crook, who lives on Kent Island, decided long ago that he needed to be as adaptable as his prey. A leased boat slip in the upscale St. Margaret's area between Annapolis and the Bay Bridge makes it easier to work a tried-and-true route from Sandy Point almost to the mouth of the Severn River. He thinks there are more crabs around the confluence of the Severn, South and Magothy rivers.

Proximity means savings on increasingly costly diesel fuel for Crook, who works close to home in the winter months with his clam boat, docked at Kent Island. The cold weather harvest is sold mostly in New England, where Crook says soft-shell clams are as popular as crabs are in Maryland.

"Most watermen learn a certain area, and then maybe try some places around the bay a little bit," he said. "But mostly, I stick with my bread and butter."

Lately, his favorite spots have been fruitful. Crook says he has been bringing in about two dozen bushels a day - a catch that, depending on size, he can sell for about $1,300. He gets $80 a bushel for the largest males, $30 for smaller males, $25 for females.

State scientists predicted the big crop that Maryland watermen are catching now when DNR's annual crab survey last winter turned up large numbers of baby crabs. The most in nearly a decade were burrowed in the mud at 1,500 test sites all over the Chesapeake.

Lynn W. Fegley, a fisheries biologist with DNR's blue crab program, said the winter crab survey results were confirmed through a field trip last month on the Little Choptank River near Cambridge.

"We knew we had a tremendous number of small crabs, baby crabs," said Fegley. "It was a matter of those crabs growing to market size. There are more baby crabs than in any year since 1997. Maybe it's a benefit of regulations imposed in 2001."

That year, Maryland and Virginia enacted measures to reduce the catch, including restrictions on the crabbers' workday, the size of crabs they may keep and the areas in which they may fish.

A quick glance at preliminary numbers on the catch reported this year by watermen since the season began in April looks dismal, but cold weather slowed the industry and skewed the totals.

With more young crabs now reaching market size of 5 1/2 inches wide, most in the industry see the current bumper crop continuing through the next month or more.

"We have all these little crabs that were predicted last winter - they were right on the money," said Russell Dize, a wholesale seafood dealer from Tilghman Island.

"I expect that when a lot of the Number Ones [large male crabs] start migrating down the bay, we'll see a lot of them caught through the third week in October," Dize said.

Billy Crook is looking beyond the current season. He is encouraging his 18-year-old son, Nicholas, who just graduated from Kent Island High, to make his life as a waterman, too.

Crook's 25-year-old daughter, Gina, has a teaching degree from the University of Maryland but is running the family's year-old retail seafood store - another way Crook saw to diversify.

Gazing out toward the Bay Bridge at three charter fishing boats loaded with customers, Crook said he plans to stick with his profession rather than get into what he calls "entertainment fishing."

"I know I can't get this out of my blood," Crook said.

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