Delaware crab yield projected to be double last year’s catch

Waterman Larry Voss unloads the catch of the day onto the Leipsic River docks. If the season’s yield meets state projections, it will be almost twice as many crabs as last year, which was the best year since 2010. (Delaware State News photos by Dave Chambers)

Waterman Larry Voss unloads the catch of the day onto the Leipsic River docks. If the season’s yield meets state projections, it will be almost twice as many crabs as last year, which was the best year since 2010. (Delaware State News photos by Dave Chambers)

LEIPSIC — As summer heats up, so does crab season.

Local crabbers are bringing in more blue crabs now than they have all season to this point.

“Overall, this year has been better than last year, but these past few weeks have been way better and I think the rest of the summer looks promising,” said Lingo Voss, a local crabber for more than 40 years.

Lingo and his brother, Larry, crab with a few employees in the Leipsic River starting at daylight during the season, which runs from March to November.

The Vosses usually are done with the day around noon.

“It’s easier to get more done in the morning and it’s also the coolest time of day,” Lingo said. “If you come out in the afternoon, it’s going to be too hot for the crabs and they’re not going to last very long.”

Ike Burrows of Smyrna holds a fresh Delaware Bay blue claw crab inside Sambo’s Restaurant in Leipsic while 26-year employee Sandra Armbruster of Leipsic breads a batch of fresh oysters Monday morning inside the Leipsic landmark.

Ike Burrows of Smyrna holds a fresh Delaware Bay blue claw crab inside Sambo’s Restaurant in Leipsic while 26-year employee Sandra Armbruster of Leipsic breads a batch of fresh oysters Monday morning inside the Leipsic landmark.

The brothers keep a daily log of how many crabs they bring in. After flipping through a few pages they saw that during the week of July 4th, 2014, the largest catch amounted to only three bushels.

The Vosses said on any given day over the past month or so their boats bring in five to 10 bushels a day.

According to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s projections, about 3 million to 3.5 million pounds of crabs (weight includes the shell) are expected to be harvested in 2015. If the yield meets the projections, it will be almost twice as many crabs as last year, the best year since 2010.

To make projections for each year, DNREC monitors the size and quantity of young crabs between April and October at 26 Delaware locations, a process they’ve followed since 1978.

“Looking at crab larvae usually gives us a good indication of what to expect the following year,” said Mike Greco, a fisheries biologist for DNREC. “But there are many other factors — especially weather that can impact the actual results.”

After a particularly cold and icy, winter, a large quantity of crabs might be naturally killed off, lowering the next season’s yield. The Vosses attributed the poor yield in 1977 to a bitter winter.

Other unforeseen circumstances are wind, which can cause rough waters moving small crabs either closer or farther away from shore; and rain. If there is a rainy spring or fall, the reduced salt content in the water can kill crabs.

The Vosses have been crabbing for recreation since they were about 10 years old, but have been working commercially since 1980.

Dover waterman Matt Ferguson loads used crab pots onto a trailer after a hard day’s work on the Delaware Bay.

Dover waterman Matt Ferguson loads used crab pots onto a trailer after a hard day’s work on the Delaware Bay.

“There are good years and bad years,” said Larry Voss, who turned 58 Tuesday. “I would say since we’ve been crabbing, the worst year was for us was 1977 and the crabs didn’t rebound until 1980. The best year was 1995.”

DNREC reported that over the past decade, 2012 and 2013 were the worst years, producing only half the quantity of crabs as 2014.

The quantity of the catches isn’t reliant on the weather conditions, or even the number of crabs roaming the water.

Due to regulations to keep a steady population, immature crabs — males less than 5 inches — cannot be caught. Lingo said about half of what he and his crew catch has to be thrown back.

All males below 5 inches must be tossed back, but females, since they do not grow as large as males, may be caught smaller than 5 inches but only when mature.

Mature females are identified by a rounded apron on the underside; immature females have a v-shaped apron.

The size is measured from tip to tip on the top shell.

Females bearing eggs, known as sponge crabs, also must be returned to the water. They can be identified by orange eggs visible under their apron.

“We don’t eyeball the size of any crabs. We measure each to make sure they meet the minimum because we don’t like citations,” Larry said.

After sorting through the crabs, tossing back those that are too small, the Vosses log the final count. One of the Voss brothers or an employee then loads the crabs on a truck and heads to Pleasanton Seafood just north of Dover. That’s where their crabs are sold.

Although the quantity of crabs caught in Delaware’s waters this year is better than the past few years, the quality always is in flux. About 10 percent of the crabs the Vosses have brought in lately are No. 1’s (crabs bigger than 5.5 inches and full of meat). The other 90 percent are No. 2’s (crabs between 5 and 5.5 inches and less full of meat).

The classifications depend on the size of the crabs. Since it’s still early in the season, many crabs are small but by the time August comes around, No. 1’s probably will be 6 inches or bigger.

“This is something that’s always changing as the crabs shed their shells and keep growing,” Larry said. “In a few

Life on the Leipsic River Monday morning.

Life on the Leipsic River Monday morning.

weeks, we will probably have more Number 1’s because the ones who are now shedding their shells will be filling out their new, bigger shells soon.”

DNREC’s Mr. Greco said male crabs will shed their shell between four and six times during their expected lifespan of three years. Males can double their size between sheds. If food is abundant, it can take as little as two weeks for a crab to fill its new shell with meat.

Sambo’s Tavern in Leipsic serves fresh crabs and buys them right off the dock where their kitchen opens on to.

That’s the location the Vosses and other local crabbers use.

“We buy right off the dock almost daily and only buy what we need since we have such good access,” said Ike Burrows, second-generation owner of the 62-year-old business. “We never keep crabs for more than two days but we hardly ever have a problem getting them out within that time.”

Despite ups and downs in the year and season, Mr. Burrows said demand for crabs is usually pretty consistent.

“Early in the season there usually aren’t too many big crabs around here,” he said. “So in the early spring to meet the demand we usually buy crabs from Maryland or North Carolina. But the crabbers have been getting good catches lately, so for the past couple weeks we’ve been able to use only local crabs.”

He pointed to a fresh bushel in the kitchen and showed the different sizes.

“So this one’s a No. 1,” he said picking out one of the largest crabs in the bushel. “He isn’t going to shed his shell again, so he’s as big as he’s going to get. But some of the No. 2’s might have one shedding left. So as the season goes on, there will continue to be bigger ones.”

When it comes to selling crabs, retailers like Sambo’s and Pleasanton follow market prices that can change from day to day.

“It really depends on how many crabs they’re bringing in and it comes down to supply and demand,” Mr. Burrows said.

But the supply and demand doesn’t just end at Delaware’s docks. Crabbing is popular from Florida to New York so the catches along nearly the entire East Coast impact market prices.

Prices are typically high between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. That’s because demand is high due to the holidays. But, supply is low because it’s still early in the season. So, many of the crabs are too small to be caught.

Currently, crabs in the area are running customers about $300 per bushel. Pleasanton was selling them at $305 a bushel as of Wednesday.

However, prices are expected to come down in the coming days and weeks.

“The best time for buyers is probably around mid-July through October because the crabs are bigger and there’s more of them,” Mr. Burrows said.

Reach staff writer Ashton Brown at abrown@newszap.com. Follow @AshtonReports on Twitter.

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