Baltimore crab houses haven't any crabs

If you can find steamed crabs in Baltimore, consider yourself lucky.

Bo Brooks in Canton has an outgoing voice message telling customers there aren't any crabs. A hostess confirmed the bad news.

The crabs aren't coming in. The problem is on the supply side. The Maryland crab harvest doesn't begin until April 1, and the supply from the winter harvest from the Gulf of Mexico has dwindled.

"This is the worst winter we've had in recent memory," said Dan Donnelly, general manager of Cantler's Riverside Inn in Annapolis, who said his suppliers simply don't have crabs to give him. "If they did, I’d be getting them," Donnelly said.

Donnelly said that February is typically a slow month, but the Gulf crab supply typically starts to increase in March, when he'll have 20 to 25 bushels on hand for a weekend. "Now I'm lucky to have three," said Donnelly, who said he can usually gauge his crab supply by watching the Weather Channel.

“March, we’re usually getting them pretty good,” Donnelly said. “Usually one part of the country is cold, and another is warm. It seems the whole South is cold and windy and rainy.

Live crabs have been scarce to none for at least three weeks at Canton Dockside, according to Amanda McCarty, who said she hates seeing disappointed customers. The early, spring-like weather, she thought, may be sending diners looking for steamed crabs earlier than usual.

"It's hard for people to understand, and understandably so, when it’s a beautiful day and they can't have crabs.  We want to be filling those seats and have people ordering crabs more than anyone."

For Donnelly, the lack of crabs at Cantler's is more than a mid-March nuisance. He's held off re-hiring seasonal employees and hopes they don't find work elsewhere. And Donnelly said he’s had to lay out the hard facts to a party of 75 reserved for April 7.

"Supply is absolutely terrible," said Trent Neyer, manager at Bluepoint Crab House in Reisterstown. "The trucks keep coming up empty."

Down in Ponchatoula, La., the crabs aren't moving. "So far it's terrible," said Keith Watts, who owns a crabbing company. "Hopefully, it's going to change."

"Mother Nature plays a big role in the abundance of crabs," said Steven Vilnit, marketing director of fisheries marketing for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "We've had the same problem here in the [Chesapeake] Bay," said Vilnit, who is responsible for marketing Maryland seafood. "We feel their pain."

Watts is the current chairman of the Louisiana Blue Crab Task Force, an advisory committee to the state's department of wildlife and fisheries composed of fishermen, processors, economists and marine biologists. He said Louisiana crabbers have been struggling, on and off, for years. "We've had a hard time since Katrina, with storms and oil spills," Watts said. "It's not no fun."

Watts said that cold weather has kept the crabs from swimming and that March 7, a traditional bellwether date for Louisiana watermen, passed without a change in luck. "I kind of thought they'd bite a little each week. We're trying to get some up to you," Watts said. "If you ain't got none you ain't got none." 

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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