Summer is making soft crabs a hard sell

Low harvests have watermen coming up dry this season


TANGIER SOUND -- Dwight Marshall hoists his crab pot onto the deck of the Miss Marshall and opens the hatch. Inside are a half-dozen jellyfish, a few blades of grass and four scurrying peeler crabs.

Over two hours, he will pull up a hundred more pots and every time it is the same - many worthless sea creatures and only a few of the moneymaking soft-shell crabs that keep watermen afloat.

For the crabbers that work the choppy waters west of Crisfield - historically the cradle of crab bounty - this summer is shaping up to be the worst in decades.

Since May, when the crabs typically shed their shells en masse and watermen make the money that gets them through the winter, Marshall and his fellow crabbers have endured skyrocketing expenses for fuel while the catch has been terrible.

Though the state doesn't have numbers yet for the summer, the ferry loads tell the dismal story. Smith Island crabbers usually ship about 25 boxes a day to the markets in Crisfield, each box holding up to 18 dozen soft-shells. Last month, the ferry was hauling just four boxes a trip.

"It's up there among the worst seasons. I'll put it that way," said Marshall, who has crabbed for more than 40 years and is known as one of the island's best watermen.

Even in good years, peelers account for less than 10 percent of the Chesapeake Bay crab harvest. Conditions needed for a good shed are so specific that a poor peeler catch doesn't tell scientists much about the hard crab season, said Lynn Fegley, a fisheries director at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Fegley's numbers show that watermen harvested about 1.4 million pounds of hard crabs from Maryland's portion of the bay in May, the last month for which numbers are available. That figure is slightly above average for recent years.

The peeler harvest is measured in the thousands of pounds. But to the watermen of Smith Island and other Tangier Sound communities, those numbers mean everything.

More than 90 percent of the state's soft crabs come from Tangier Sound, and nearly every islander's living is tied to the season. Men in the three island towns of Tylerton, Rhodes Point and Ewell rise before sunset and ride out to their peeler pots - steel cages that sink to the sound's bottom and catch the scurrying crabs. Some crabbers prefer to use a scrape that drags along the bottom.

The men return home by midafternoon and place their crabs in a sloughing tank, where they check them every few hours to see whether they've shed their shells. When that happens, they take out the crabs, pack them in the boxes and load them onto the Crisfield ferry for shipment all over the country.

Fred Marshall, who at 80 is the oldest man in Tylerton, remembers the last time he saw a season as bad as this one. It was shortly after World War II, and crabs were so scarce that islanders rode out the season working in Baltimore shipyards.

Those shipyard jobs are long gone, but crabbers are still looking elsewhere for a living. Many have already left the island for jobs in the state prison in Princess Anne, where the paycheck is steady and the benefits good.

The younger men, such as Adam Corbin, are looking to tugboats, tough work where they'll be away from their families half the month. Corbin, a 23-year-old with a tattoo of Jesus on his forearm, works as a mate on another crabber's' boat.

Though his father is a crabber, and his grandfather was one too, Corbin said he can't endure a waterman's life.

"For me, it was either get a boat and go into debt, or get off. It wasn't a very hard decision."

The poor season comes as the cost of diesel fuel is increasing; a boat's gas bill can run several hundred dollars a week. The price of steel for making the crab pots is also rising, as is the zinc used to stop corrosion.

"A lot of the younger ones just don't want this type of life, and you can't blame them," said Billy Clayton Jr., a crabber who typically catches 500 to 600 peelers a day but this month was catching only a couple of hundred a week.

Smith Islanders live frugally. Homes are modest, and the few cars on the island's narrow streets have seen better days. There are no bars or liquor stores. Ewell has two restaurants catering mostly to tourists.

But islanders are known to splurge on a few luxuries, such as minibikes for the children at Christmas and day trips to Crisfield and Salisbury for shopping.

Lately, Clayton said, he and his wife have rarely left the island.

"When it gets this tight, we just pull in the reins," he said. Even though the blue crab is one of the most studied organisms in the Chesapeake Bay, with millions of dollars devoted to its restoration, scientists don't know much about the peeler season.

"We don't fully understand what causes crabs to move on when they do, or to molt when they do," said Thomas Miller, a professor at the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons. "We tend not to study things in enough detail until we reach crisis mode."

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