It's hard work catching soft crabs, a fickle livelihood in an increasingly precarious part of the world.
Starting before sunup, Smith Island waterman Mark Kitching spends hours repeatedly "scraping" the submerged grass beds that grow abundantly around his home in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. On a recent morning, he's commuted 45 minutes through the pre-dawn darkness to work north of
Straits some 13 miles away.
The Cummins diesel engine in his work boat, Miss Anita, provides the power to drag a pair of nets through thick grass beds where Kitching hopes to find soft crabs and "peelers," those young crabs about to shed their shells and form larger new ones. It's his 51-year-old back muscles, though, that are needed to haul in each "scrape," a heavy rectangular steel frame with a net attached.
That back-bending work has its rewards. While some crabbers have been grumbling this summer about spotty catches and small crabs, those who focus on highly prized peelers and soft crabs have done relatively well, according to Brenda K. Davis, who oversees commercial crabbing for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
A survey last winter found the bay brimming with more crabs than had been seen in nearly two decades, but the bulk of them were little juvenile crabs that wouldn't grow to harvestable size until late this season or even next spring — assuming they survive that long.
"We see a lot of small crabs," said Kitching. Still, he says he's not complaining, because last year was awful for him. "No crabs wanted to come in shallow water," he recalled. "This year's been pretty good."
Invented in the late 19th century, scrapes remain the gear of choice for a relative handful of crabbers who scour the shallow waters of
Sound. Once one is heaved aboard, the tangle of grass caught in the net teems with crabs, turtles and even little fish. Wearing thick gloves to shield his hands from painful pinches, Kitching quickly paws through the vegetation, plucking out the claw-waving keepers and tossing back six or eight times as many not big enough yet to harvest legally.
Crab scrapers like Kitching get first crack at that bumper crop of young crustaceans, as they can legally keep any peelers or soft crabs that measure at least 31/2 inches across. By comparison, "hard" crabs, the ones Marylanders love to eat steamed, can't be caught until they're at least 51/4 inches across.
Even Kitching isn't exactly swimming in crabs, though. Lately, he said, he's been returning to the dock with 100 to 150 peelers, a third to a fourth of what he was catching in July. His haul that day in Holland Straits wouldn't even fill a bushelbasket. The catch normally is highest in late spring and early summer. Though he hopes for one more run of peelers this season, Kitching said his season is winding down and effectively ends in early fall, as cooler weather sends most crabs to deeper water.
Meager as his catch may seem, soft-shell crabs are Chesapeake gold, a delicacy that commands higher prices. While peelers and soft crabs accounted for only about 5 percent of the overall crab catch last year, soft crabs sell for five times more on average than their bigger, hard-shell brothers and sisters, according to DNR's Davis.
Kitching said he gets $30 to $32 per dozen on average — and sometimes up to $40 a dozen for "jumbo" soft crabs shipped to New York — compared with $45 to $50 per bushel dockside for hard crabs. (A bushel typically holds five to seven dozen, depending on size.)
He'll earn those higher prices, though, in the extra time and effort needed to turn peelers into soft crabs. Rather than sell his catch to a dealer, Kitching returns home to "babysit" the peelers in a dockside "pound," a shed where the crabs are kept in shallow tanks and checked repeatedly day and night until they doff their shells.
It takes a practiced eye to spot the faint early signs, but young crabs display telltale hints of color in their flippers indicating how close they are to molting. First white, then pink, and finally a relatively visible red tinge that means they're within a couple of days. Squeezing a flipper to feel for a new one forming inside the shell can narrow that range down to a matter of hours.
Once the soft crabs have been culled and prepared for market, they are packed and left on the dock for shipment to the mainland via the twice-daily ferries. A week or so later, Kitching said, he gets a check without ever seeing the buyer — a rare business relationship still based in large part on trust.
Only about 20 Maryland crabbers still use the 19th century scraping gear, according to a study of the fishery done last year for the
. Others use "peeler pots," variants of the wire-mesh traps or "pots" used to catch hard crabs. In peeler pots, a live male crab is used as "bait" to attract female peeler crabs looking for a mate as they prepare to shed their shells.
"They're a dying breed," said William Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, of scrapers. Hauling in scrapes is "really hard work," he said. Its chief advantage, he added, is it's a relatively inexpensive way to crab, without a potter's investment in gear and bait.
"It gets boring at times," Kitching said of his repetitive, solitary labor. Pelicans and cormorants were his nearest fishing companions in Holland Straits that day, while a handful of other work boats could be seen in the distance.
The ranks of scrapers, and of crabbers in general, have thinned on Smith Island, the last occupied island in Maryland's portion of the bay. Paltry catches of oysters in recent decades have eroded wintertime incomes, and even crabbing hasn't been as reliable in recent years as it once was, in part because prices are kept low by a flood of imports.
Kitching said the island's Tangier Sound Watermen's Association, of which he is president, has about 40 members now. In Tylerton, the tiniest of three small communities on Smith Island, the number of women who gather daily to pick steamed crabs to sell as packaged crabmeat has dwindled to three, down from 17 or 18 in the 1990s, one said.
Crabbing still flavors the island, but many must work other jobs. Some draw sustenance from tourism or baking the island's trademark multilayer cakes. Others, like Kitching, do carpentry or other land-side work once crabbing tails off in the fall. He said he's preparing to try his hand at oyster "farming," though, amid hopeful signs the bay's bivalves are recovering from diseases that devastated them 25 years ago.
It isn't just the livelihood that seems precarious these days. The island's population has shrunk from 800 a century ago to about 240 year-round residents. Storms and rising sea level also are taking their toll on the island, nibbling away at its low-lying land.
Kitching said he's not convinced that climate change is claiming Smith Island, but he said the island appears to be sinking. Water got into the school at Ewell for the first time ever, he recalled, when Tropical Storm Isabel whipped up the bay nine years ago. Even in calmer weather, yards and roads occasionally get wet at high tide.
"All this area out here was farmland," he said, pointing out across acres of grass. "Now it's marsh."
As the land disappears, Kitching said, so do the grass beds where his and earlier generations have scraped for crabs.
"I don't worry to the point I lose sleep over it," he said. "But it is what it is."