Abundant crabs not too pricey for Maryland's Fourth

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Baltimore's longtime crab houses have a lot going for them this year as they seek to entice customers with the lure of

Ronald Warren always feels like he's gambling when he orders hundreds of bushels of crabs for his Sea Pride Crab House in the Carrollton Ridge neighborhood of Southwest Baltimore before big summer weekends.

"You have tens of thousands of dollars in your cooler, and you hope you sell them before they die," he said.

Sea Pride, Best Crabs and Bay Island Seafood make up what's known as the "Crab Corner" on Monroe Street. Like other Maryland crab houses, they rely on big summer weekends — such as the Fourth of July — in the way retailers depend on Black Friday and the holidays.

This year, the area's longtime crab houses have a lot going for them as they seek to entice customers with the lure of tradition and the aroma of steamed crabs and spicy seasoning. Owing partly to tighter catch limits, the Chesapeake Bay's crab population has rebounded in the past few years from perilously low levels.

While this year's crab population isn't quite up to last year's robust levels, the supply remains abundant enough to keep prices in check.

That's something to celebrate alongside fireworks and Independence Day, say restaurateurs and crab lovers in a state where many associate the tasty crustaceans with the Fourth as reliably as they do baseball, hot dogs and apple pie.

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"People want to celebrate the Fourth with crabs. They always have," said owner Gary Moree of Bay Island Seafood, which will have about 165 to 175 bushels of crabs on hand for the holiday, roughly 80 percent of them caught in Maryland at Hoopers Island, Crisfield and Tilghman Island. "Fourth of July every year is just fireworks, steamed crabs and cold beer. It goes with the holiday."

The timing of Independence Day this year ought to provide crab houses a lift. The holiday makes Monday and Tuesday akin to an extra weekend.

abundant-crabs-not-too-pricey-for-maryland-and-apos;s-fourth photo 2 Dan Rodricks

John Shields, Chesapeake culinary expert, is the featured guest on the latest episode of the Roughly Speaking podcast. Here is John's essay on the "care and handling of crab cakes," excerpted from, "The 25th Anniversary Edition of Chesapeake Bay Cooking," (Johns Hopkins University Press).

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John Shields, Chesapeake culinary expert, is the featured guest on the latest episode of the Roughly Speaking podcast. Here is John's essay on the "care and handling of crab cakes," excerpted from, "The 25th Anniversary Edition of Chesapeake Bay Cooking," (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Paris...

(Dan Rodricks)

"The Fourth is going to be a busy weekend: Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday," Moree said. "It's plenty of time to get crabs. … Tuesday will be the busiest day of the whole weekend."

It means a long day for Jason Woolery, a crab sorter who works at Bay Island and will spend the Fourth in the back of the carryout clad in a pair of thick rubber gloves as he sorts the crabs by size and dumps them into the steamers. He expects to work from about 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. to fill all the orders.

Lillie Butts, 36, of Baltimore, stopped at Bay Island with her daughter on Thursday afternoon and bought her a watermelon snowball in addition to her usual order of a dozen crabs.

"They're my favorite," she said of the crabs. "I only come here."

At Best Crabs, the 10 pots in the kitchen are expected to churn out 300 bushels to accommodate anticipated demand, said manager Richard Tates, who has worked there 23 years.

The carryout restaurant listed five sizes of male and female crabs, priced between $20 and $60 per dozen, as well as broiled crabcakes, shrimp, soft crabs, crab claws, tilapia, Maryland crab and cream of crab soup, and mussels. The menu's "Triple Crown" special is three dozen small crabs for $55.

"They're plentiful, they're full, they're fresh and hot all day," Tates said.

Crab prices are determined by multiple factors, including demand from consumers, costs for watermen and the price of out-of-state crabs coming into the local market. A number of popular restaurants — including Cantler's Riverside Inn in Annapolis and The Point Crab House and Grill in Arnold — say increased supplies of local crabs have let them lower prices in recent years.

"It is getting much better the past couple of years," said Bobby Jones, owner and chef of The Point Crab House and Grill.

Before 2014, "it was just a nightmare honestly," Jones said. "I was considering just calling it 'The Point' and taking the crab part off because there was no profitability. Now the bay just seems to be doing really well."

As recently as 2012, Jones said, the restaurant, overlooking Mill Creek, had to supplement its limited Maryland supply with crabs from other states. Many other crab restaurants in the state still do that.

"Crabs don't like to be bounced around and shipped," he said. "If I buy a bushel I might yield 80 percent because 20 percent died. If they're from Maryland the yield is a lot higher."

In 2016, there were 550 million crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, according to an annual winter crab survey — 35 percent more than a year earlier and one of the highest counts in two decades. As a result, Maryland and Virginia allowed watermen to harvest crabs three weeks later into November than the year before and they sold about 20 percent more crabs.

This year, the count fell to 455 million, a decrease experts attributed to the variable nature of the species. The bay's blue crab population is subject to factors as varied as water currents, winter temperatures and levels of oxygen in the water. Add crabs' short life span — two to three years — and population dynamics can swing dramatically from one year to the next.

This year's population losses included a 54 percent drop in the juvenile crab population and came despite a record-high count of adult female crabs.

On Tuesday, Maryland responded by announcing that its commercial crabbing season will end Nov. 20, 10 days earlier than the extended 2016 season.

"This is a precautionary measure — it's not as bad as it sounds," said Robert T. Brown Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "If it had been bad, it would have been a severe cut."

The prices watermen are receiving, Brown said, "are off a little bit" compared to last year.

"We had a cool spring. The crabs didn't sell that well," Brown said. "People like it hot when they eat hot crabs."

Also, he said, "I think the crabs know when holidays come because they just seem to get a little scarcer."

Sea Pride normally sells a dozen crabs for $16 for smalls to $100 for jumbos.

"We normally get our bigger crabs from Louisiana because they've got more time to grow because of the (warmer) water temperature," said Victoria Choe, a manager who is Warren's step daughter.

Locust Point Steamers owner Bud Gardner predicted a "banner Fourth" for crabs this year. He ordered about 100 bushels of crabs to last through the four-day holiday weekend.

"Our guy brings them in all day long … six, seven bushels at a time," Gardner said. "He'll come five times per day."

The crab house will stay open through the holiday weekend, offering both dine-in and carry-out crabs ranging from $35-per-dozen smalls to $95-per-dozen larges — and sometimes, jumbos for $115 per dozen, although they're tougher to get on a holiday.

Cantler's prices ranged from $45 for a dozen mediums to $110 for 12 "supers." The waterfront restaurant, known for its picnic tables covered in brown paper, doesn't typically sell a small size.

Cantler's said the increased local supply has pushed the price of a dozen crabs down $5 since last year.

"We can get as many as we need," said Bruce Whalen, Cantler's general manager. "Two or three years ago it was a pain. We sold out on Memorial Day a few years ago. When you're a crab house you never want to sell out."

Brittany Geronimo cannot imagine Fourth of July without her family's crab feast with three neighboring families on Marleigh Circle in Towson.

They stake out a spot at 6:30 a.m. for the Towson parade, and afterward everyone gathers at her parents' house for a bushel of crabs, as well as pepper steak, burgers, chicken, deviled eggs, fruit salad and an assortment of pies and other desserts. The tradition has been alive for more than 50 years.

"It's just so Maryland," said Geronimo, 27. "I've never spent a Fourth of July any different, and I wouldn't want to."

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Article Abundant crabs not too pricey for Maryland's Fourth compiled by www.baltimoresun.com