Hungry for holiday crabs? Better get out the wallet

Josh Malowski, left, and Tyler Dixon unload crabs fresh of the boat Quick Decision at Sambos in Leipsic. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — This year’s crabbing season didn’t start out quite so hot for Smyrna’s Brian Hoffecker, as he remembers crawling inside his truck to go crabbing early one morning in March and his temperature gauge read 31 degrees. He then pulled out his cellphone, which displayed a wind chill of 21 degrees.

Thankfully for Mr. Hoffecker, along with many other commercial crabbers in Delaware, things didn’t stay that cold for too long.

With Independence Day coming up Saturday — and demand skyrocketing for the Delaware Bay crustaceans — Mr. Hoffecker can fondly look back on this past spring and say it was the most productive time that he has had crabbing since he began in the business some 26 years ago.

Fresh steamed crabs at Sambos in Leipsic. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“This weekend is a holiday,” said Mr. Hoffecker. “I’ll tell you what, this will be my 26th year or something on my own (crabbing) and this is the best price that we’ve gotten for crabs in 26 years. I don’t know if it had anything to do with the coronavirus or with the restaurants being shut down and seafood carryout places … or if people were just bored and looking for stuff to do or whatever.

“(COVID-19) hurt us fishing this spring. We got half the money for the fishes than what we normally get, and it sounded that way when we started out crabbing. There were some buyers that weren’t going to buy and didn’t know what they were going to do with the crabs, and I think that was more of an excuse like it always is — wait and see what you’re going to catch before they tell you a price or whatever.”

If any revelers are planning a backyard crab party, with social distancing in effect during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, they should expect to pay a hefty amount of money for the Mid-Atlantic region’s wildly popular blue crabs. For those who will be purchasing crabs at a retail store, they can expect to pay at least twice as much money.

A ‘matter of supply and demand’

Frank Coleman, owner of Eastern Shore Seafood in Smyrna, said it’s all a simple matter of supply and demand.

“Right now it’s supply and demand,” Mr. Coleman said. “There isn’t any supply and the demand is high. What’s happening is the restaurants are closed in Baltimore so everybody runs to the retail stores and the retail stores have either doubled or tripled in sales.

“They’re trying to satisfy their demand and if you can’t get the crabs, of course you’re going to offer them more money to get more crabs and that’s why the price goes up. If diamonds were more plentiful they wouldn’t be worth as much.”

However, the price for crabs coming from Delaware Bay watermen are starting to show signs of coming down as the season normally gets busier after the Fourth of July holiday.

“Generally, a good bushel of (No. 1s — large crabs) in the springtime will go off the boat for $125 to $140 tops,” Mr. Hoffecker said. “This year, they were upwards of $200 and over. Then, the middleman has to get his $30 on a basket and then when they get to the store, if we’re getting $200, you can pretty much guarantee that they’re double that at the store — they’re $400. Online, I saw where they were up close to $500.

“But that was earlier this spring. We’re not getting that now. Now, our price for crabs has dropped, but I don’t think they’ve dropped in the retail, though. I’m sure if anything this weekend, they’re probably higher than what they were last weekend, but not for us. That’s just kind of how the retail things work.”

John Clark, the fisheries section administrator for the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife, said the watermen that he has spoken to have been quite pleased at the haul of crabs they have been able to bring in this spring, while other areas like Virginia and Maryland are not faring as well, so far.

“The last time I spoke to any of the crabbers was last week, and it had surprised the heck out of them for how good they were for crabs,” Mr. Clark said. “I know several people who have been crabbing for years, and they told me prices were as high as they’d ever seen for No. 1s. … They’re about $200 to $250 a bushel.

“In Maryland, as far as the Chesapeake (Bay), the crabbing just hadn’t come on as quickly as it did in Delaware. It was like we had the crabs, and they wanted the crabs on the bay over there.”

The annual Blue Crab Advisory Report, released July 1st by the Chesapeake Bay Program and developed by the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee, announced its findings that the overall Chesapeake Bay blue crab population is not being overfished and is not depleted. The blue crab population in the bay — which varies naturally from year to year — decreased from 594 million in 2019 to 405 million in 2020.

The report includes expert analysis of data from the annual bay-wide winter dredge survey and harvest estimates from recent years to provide an in-depth picture of the Chesapeake’s blue crab population and to make suggestions for any needed changes to regulations.

Crab prices tend to fluctuate

While crab prices continually fluctuate from market to market, Mr. Clark agrees with Mr. Coleman that the higher cost of crabs this year is just due to supply and demand.

“Especially with the Chesapeake area there in Maryland — it’s kind of the epicenter of crab-eating as well as crabbing, and our crabbers here in Delaware have had more of a supply than they’ve had over there, so they’ve been able to get real high prices for it now,” he said. “I’ve heard the dealer market is pretty good, too. I guess we’ll see as summer goes on whether this continues.

“I just saw that in Maine the price of lobster is at its lowest price they’ve had in like 25 or 30 years. So, sometimes, you just never know.”

Mr. Hoffecker said the hot action on crabs in the Delaware Bay is beginning to slow down as crabs are starting to shed and are mating right now. He also said that crabs eat each other frequently during this part of the season.

“We have crab, but if you would have went crabbing with me one day two weeks ago … we have as many crabs this year than I’ve probably seen in 10 or 12 years,” he said. “If you would have went with me two weeks ago, you would have been like, ‘Wow!’ If you go with me right now, you’d say, ‘There’s not a crab in this bay hardly.’

“We’ve actually gotten lucky this year. We had crabs on Father’s Day, we had crabs on Mother’s Day, we had crabs on Memorial Day. Usually, it seems like there’s a calendar in the water, and anytime there’s a holiday, you can guarantee that’s when the crabs fall off.”

Not only is that great news for the crabbers, it’s also good for restaurants like Sambo’s in Leipsic, Boondocks in Smyrna, Meding’s Seafood near Milford, Seafood City in Felton, Claws Seafood House and The Crab House in Rehoboth Beach, the Old Mill Crab House in Delmar and all the other places that rely on the magical combination of crabs, Old Bay seasoning, mallets and a pint of a favorite adult beverages to enjoy the summer season just a little bit more.

Taking matters into their own hands

Smyrna’s Gene Shaner isn’t interested in heading out to a restaurant or a retail store to stock up on crabs for the Fourth of July.

“My friend, Scott Melson, and I plan on catching our own this weekend. … There is a lot of time getting ready, and bait and fuel is our cost. Crab prices usually increase during holidays because the supply and demand goes up. Quality crabs really work with moon phases and water temperature.”

Gerry Wright of Dewey Beach has a similar plan.

“Bait: $20. Boat fuel: $40. Beer: $90. Catching crabs with friends and family: priceless,” Mr. Wright said.

Mr. Coleman said he is interested to see how sales will be this weekend considering that COVID-19 pandemic keeps rolling on with fireworks shows canceled, along with many get togethers.

“It’s hard to say what’s going to happen with everybody canceling the fireworks because everybody used to have a tradition — eat crabs and watch the fireworks and now this year there’s no fireworks, so it’ll have to be backyard parties,” he said. “People used to gather and eat crabs and stuff and we’re hoping that everybody has a great Fourth of July despite not having fireworks.”

Despite the excellent season so far for catching crabs in Delaware, Mr. Hoffecker said that this is definitely not the weekend to try to get them into the crab pot.

“I was talking to an old-timer two nights ago on the telephone, and the guy’s 67 years old and probably been crabbing 40 years or so, and this was one of the best things I ever heard,” he said. “He told me that he’s built a lot of crab pots in his life, and they’re very nice crab pots, he’s built me some, and he told me, ‘In all of my years of building crab pots and stuff, I’ve never been able to design one that caught a crab on the Fourth of July.’ That’s pretty much about right.”

For the right price, however, one can get a pile of them on their plates just in time for Independence Day.