Watermen caught in pinch of rising costs, scarce crabs

May 28, 2007|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun reporter

SOLOMONS -- Tommy Zinn peers into the glistening Patuxent River, watching his line of chicken necks go by. A crab bites one and Zinn quickly scoops it up in his dip net, dropping it onto a cull bin where about a dozen other blue and red clawed crabs skitter about.

It's not great, not by a long shot. But with Memorial Day being just about the biggest weekend for selling and eating crabs, Zinn tries anyway. A days' work gets him just one basket of crabs, which he'll sell for about $100. Minus his fuel and bait costs, Zinn will net about $70.

While thousands of families are sitting down with a few cold longnecks and a plate of steamers on a holiday weekend, Maryland's crabbers are feeling pinched. Costs for fuel and bait have risen about 30 percent since last year, while the price of crabs at market has dropped about 10 percent. Crabs are scarce, too, because a colder-than-usual spring has meant the water temperature is still not warm enough to bring them to the surface.

"A lot of us are just struggling to beat out a living out here," Zinn said as he steered his 25-foot C-Hawk back and forth in the shadow of the Thomas Johnson Bridge. "I don't know how some of us survive."

Zinn, who is president of the Calvert County Watermen's Association, has figured out how to shave some costs from his operation. He keeps his boat at a friend's place near his home, and keeps fuel costs relatively low by staying close to the pier. The chicken necks he uses for bait are still relatively inexpensive, and the trotline he puts them on doesn't require much maintenance. Zinn oysters in the winter, and he picks up a little income doing work for the Oyster Recovery Partnership.

But eking out a living is still tough for the longtime crabber, known as the "Little Debbie Man" because of the cooler filled with coffee cakes and ladyfingers he keeps in the boat. This year, Zinn lost the main buyer of his product, a nearby roadside stand that went out of business when the land it was on was sold. The owner of the stand always gave Zinn a good price, and he also bought everything - from the larger, male crabs that are steamed and slathered in Old Bay, to the smaller females that often wind up in the picking houses.

Zinn found a new buyer in St. Mary's, but he can't do much about the crabs. To make anything approaching a decent living, he needs to catch about three baskets a day, and the crabs aren't cooperating.

About a thousand watermen make at least some part of their living crabbing, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. And while trotliners like Zinn are struggling, watermen who set crab pots in the Chesapeake Bay are having an even rougher time this year.

The crab potter's bait of choice, razor clams, has risen in price to nearly $50 a bushel. Fuel costs can run more than $100 a day for the potters, who travel many miles across the water to retrieve pots. The zinc they put on their pots to stop corrosion is also skyrocketing.

"Their whole cost of doing business has really gone up," said Lynn Fegley, director of operations for DNR's fisheries service. "We have seen a very gradual attrition of crabbers. There are definitely fewer guys out there than there were six years ago."

Smith Island crabber Dwight Marshall knows a lot of guys who have reluctantly turned to jobs on tugboats, tired of fighting the uncertainties of being their own bosses on the water. Marshall, who keeps his pots in Tangier Sound, said it costs him between $400 and $600 just to go out, factoring in bait, fuel, maintenance and paying a mate to help with the workload.

"Our expenses have doubled or tripled," Marshall said. "We're all in the same boat. Somebody's making an awful lot of money, but we ain't."

The state's winter dredge survey, which is the measure of how many crabs will be expected to swim in the bay in the spring, indicated this year's adult crab population would be about as abundant as last year's, when Maryland's harvest was about 28 million pounds. But with low water temperatures, the crabs are scarcer than restaurants would like for Memorial Day. A lot of guys haven't even started crabbing yet, said Bonnie Willey, who runs a Taylor's Island "peeler pen" for soft crabs with her husband, Mike.

It's a real change from three years ago, when the soft crab run coincided with Memorial Day and the Willeys worked day and night to move their product.

"We're about a week and a half behind on everything this year," Willey said. "It's been really slow here."

Zinn said he wouldn't have even bothered to take out his boat until after the holiday if word hadn't gotten around that a waterman had caught a basket in the Patuxent the week before. Hoping the crabs were still biting, he got on the water early Thursday morning. But he had company in his favorite spot; a boat from Baltimore County that usually crabs farther north decided to give the area a try. Later, a boat from nearby Broomes Island sailed down the Patuxent to try for crabs.

Zinn said he didn't mind. There's enough room in the river for everyone, even if there aren't enough crabs.

"I have a grandson who thinks he wants to be a waterman. I try to discourage him," Zinn said. "I wouldn't encourage any young people to get into this and really depend on it."

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

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