Volume 13, Issue 40 ~ October 6 - 12, 2005
Crab Catch
by M.L. Faunce

The Second Season
Fall is a second coming for crabs, even as oysters come on

On a sun-kissed September morning, crabs were running in the tree-lined Choptank River. This time of year they’re “so fat they’re busting their shells,” Jack Brooks of J.M. Clayton Seafood told the party of journalists, government officials, food writers and critics — consumers all — on board the Captain Buddy out of Tilghman Island at the invitation of Maryland’s Seafood Marketing Program.

Yet oysters, just in season, couldn’t wait their turn.

Out on the river in search of trotliners, we first encountered not working watermen but working scientists from the Center for Enviromental Studies’ Horn Point Lab. On board the Misty, they were hovering over a managed oyster bar, checking oysters planted by the Oyster Recovery Partnership in 2000 for size as they sampled the water’s salinity levels. Warm water and balmy breezes may pretend summer, but the R months signal we’re on the cusp of change.

We learned a little more about arsters and crabs minutes later when we caught up with Rudy Robbins, working 2,400 feet of trotline, with 400 pieces of bait dangling just beneath the glint of rippling water. Crabs are “dropping off now in the river, only three or four weeks left,” he said. Working alone on a good day he might take in 15 to 20 bushels. But this was not a good day. Near noon, out on the water since 5:30am, his haul was just two bushels.

Soon arsters will be Robbins’ catch. Last year he power-dredged since, he says, “hand-tonging is just about a thing of the past.” Robbins has worked these waters “all his life”; 35 years, he says, starting crabbing at the age of 13. This fall, because of Katrina, he’s looking for better prices for oysters — though he says, “I don’t wish bad luck on anybody.”

Bad luck can come in other ways to watermen. Robbins’ work boat is the 33-foot Thedus Ann. Interesting name for a boat I thought, and asked. “The last boat I bought I changed the name,” he says. “Shouldn’t have. I lost a lot of money.” This boat came with the name Thedus Ann. That’s the name she’ll keep, as long as Robbins owns her.

If crabs are dropping off in the tributaries, where watermen must crab by trotline and not pot, crab-potters in the Bay are making up for lost time this spring, reports Captain Bud Harrison Jr. of Tilghman, whose father is our boat’s namesake. Fall is also where he pins his hopes for making up lost rockfishing time and money. Some fishing parties cancelled out this summer, he says, because of hot weather. The fall season just ahead Harrison calls the second season, when crabs, oysters and rockfishing on the Bay are at their best.

Second Season is a term the Maryland Seafood Marketing Program might want to pick up on, for there’s no time like the present in Chesapeake Country.

Our good luck shines brighter in contrast to the plight of our sister crab and oyster states. What effect would Katrina have on the Maryland crab market, I asked at our next stop, J.M. Clayton Company’s dock in Cambridge, where we’d come to see Chesapeake blues cooked, picked and packed as well as caught. Here crabs are unloaded from boats and trucks for their next step: a steaming vat as big as an SUV.

Brooks’ happy countenance darkened: “It will present a short-term opportunity,” he said, “but this will hurt all of our industry. More than likely, imported crab will take up the slack. Maryland will miss Louisiana. We’re competitors, but we’re friends.”

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.