BALTIMORE (AP) — Predictions of a good Chesapeake Bay crab harvest are coming true, with some watermen saying they are unable to sell all of the crabs they are catching and prices are dropping.
Watermen who go out without a dedicated buyer are having trouble at times selling their catch, said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.
"Well, sometimes buyers put 'em on a limit and sometimes they tell them just not to go," Simns said.
The bounty has pushed down prices with watermen getting as little as $20 a bushel for smaller crabs used by picking houses and larger male crabs for the restaurant market fetching $60 to $80 a bushel, down from $100 to $110 last year, Simns said.
Some processors are getting more than they can handle, said Jason Ruth, a seafood buyer at Harris Seafood in Grasonville.
"Yep, it's starting to get that way now," Ruth said, adding the number of picking houses has declined over the years, limiting how many crabs can be processed.
However, while the remaining processors are benefiting from prices Ruth estimated were 10 percent to 15 percent lower than last year, the economy is also preventing them from selling more.
"It's not just they can't produce more, they can't sell much more either," Ruth said.
Mike Luisi, deputy assistant director of the fisheries service at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said harvest numbers are not in yet, but reports so far have been good.
"Just from the things we've heard the crabbing has been fantastic this year," Luisi said.
But the bounty isn't baywide, according to Thomas Dean, Jr., who crabs out of St. Jerome's Creek near Point Lookout in southern Maryland, where the Potomac River enters the bay.
"We do have a lot of small crabs down here. I mean you can a pull a pot and it will probably have 25, 30 crabs in it and maybe two of them are keepers, the rest of them are too small," Dean said. "When they shed, when we have another shed, they'll be big enough then, but they're just under the law now."
Dean said he was planning on heading north of the Bay Bridge, where he has heard market-size crabs are plentiful.
Prices, meanwhile, have been low, at about $60 a bushel for No. 1 males and $25 for females and smaller males, Dean said.
"Prices have been bad here all year, they normally are because we only have two buyers down here and they can kind of control the prices, you know," he said.
The harvest increase was predicted by the annual winter dredge survey which put the population this year at 658 million, up from 418 million the year before and a low of 254 million in 2001, but still well below the 852 million in 1993. Overfishing, pollution and loss of habitat were blamed for the drop, but the population appears to have rebounded following severe catch restrictions.
Starting in 2008, Virginia and Maryland cut the crab harvest by a third, including shortening the season and not allowing hibernating pregnant females to be raked from the bay floor.
Simns noted crabs are rebounding up and down the East Coast, adding he believes the restrictions were only part of the reason for the rebound.
Luisi said environmental factors do play a part, but state officials believe the restrictions increased the chances for more females crabs to produce larva and "give us what we have right now."
Ruth, meanwhile, also gave credit to the cuts noting Chesapeake Bay crabs winter at the mouth of bay and their larvae can spread up and down the coast.
"They can go wherever they wish," Ruth said.