Those who enjoy cracking open a few dozen freshly cooked Delaware blue crabs are in for a treat this year, as blue crab experts expect a bumper crop of the tasty crustaceans.
“Last year we had a good year-class of baby crabs. Typically, there’s a good correlation between year-class strength and the next year’s harvest and even into the subsequent year,” said Rich Wong, a Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife fishery biologist.
Wong said April through October trawl surveys in 2009 indicate this year’s blue crab harvest should be good. He said although the crab survey was robust, it wasn’t the best year on record, but it was above average.
“Crabbing should be pretty decent between August and September, which are peak months for crab pot harvests,” he said. Wong said commercial crab dredgers should also see a good harvest, beginning in December and running through March 2011.
In Delaware, commercial crabbing is permitted only in the Delaware Bay.
Wong said on average, commercial crabbers catch and dredge about 20 million individual blue crabs from the bay annually, and recreational crabbers harvest about 2 million crabs a year.
Commercial crab harvest counts are split between the Delaware and New Jersey sides of the bay. “It’s about 7 million pounds a year if you combine harvests. It’s pretty much even,” he said.
Wong estimates the blue crab market is worth about $10 million a year in both states combined.
Wong said commercially caught Delaware Bay crabs are sold within the state to crab and seafood dealers. The dealers sell the crabs or ship them to seafood retailers or other distributors, with some crabs perhaps going directly to Philadelphia and New York markets.
“We know for sure that significant numbers are sold directly, out-of-state, to Maryland dealers,” he said. Wong said some of those crabs are probably sold as Chesapeake crabs in Maryland. “Our understanding is that most Delaware restaurants we’ve talked to do not buy local crabs for various reasons unknown to us,” he said.
Delaware or Chesapeake?
Kay Copp of Copp’s Seafood near Lewes said Delaware Bay crabs they sell are as good as those from the Chesapeake.
“Delaware crabs are very good. If you put them together with Maryland crabs you can’t tell the difference,” she said. Copp and Wong both said they know of no crab-picking houses in Delaware.
Copp is selling a bushel of medium to large male crabs for $160, and a bushel of number ones for $190.
Susan Fluharty, owner of Lazy Susan’s near Lewes, said she doesn’t sell Delaware crabs.
“I haven’t had Delaware crabs in a while because there hasn’t been enough supply of them,” she said.
Fluharty said she gets her crabs from a supplier or goes to Maryland to get them.
“I don’t get any crabs from Delaware. I get them from Maryland, North Carolina and Texas,” said Ed Riggin, owner of Ed’s Chicken & Crabs in Dewey Beach. He said Delaware crabs are too small. “They’re not the size I like,” Riggin said.
Donald Vechery, owner of The Surfing Crab on Route 1 north of the Nassau Bridge, said he doesn’t buy Delaware crabs.
“They’re too small. There aren’t any extra large, jumbos or kings. Kings weigh one pound each. That’s what I specialize in,” Vechery said.
Protect young crabs
Charles Epifanio, a marine biologist and professor at the University of Delaware College of Earth, Ocean and Environment in Lewes, said his research also points to a good crab harvest.
He said crab larvae settle into Inland Bays and Delaware Bay “nurseries” where they’re protected and able to survive to maturity.
“Nurseries are where the young crabs spend a considerable amount of time when they’re very vulnerable to predation,” Epifanio said.
He said nurseries provide shelter and food for juvenile crabs. In the Chesapeake Bay, sea grass serves as the nursery. But the Delaware Bay has little sea grass, so young crabs use nooks and crannies on the bay’s rough bottom. In the Inland Bays, they use the edges of salt marshes and salt marsh grass for protection.
“In the Rehoboth Bay and Indian River Bay, which historically did have sea grasses but don’t anymore, nurseries are in seaweed beds,” Epifanio said.
He said a blue crab’s lifespan is about three years, and any large change in population has a proportional effect on the catch.
“Within a decade period, the catch can vary by three to five fold. Compare that to a fishery like striped bass, which can live a long time. They remain in the fishery 12 to 15 years,” he said.
Epifanio said blue crab management methods and recent weather conditions have also dramatically increased their numbers. He said the number of crabs caught has also been kept constant by the retirement of commercial crabbing licenses and by limiting new licenses.
“If a license goes fallow or somebody dies, it’s not that easy to renew those under the present management circumstances,” Epifanio said.
He said most commercial crabbing in the Delaware Bay is concentrated north of Bowers Beach because at this time of year, that’s where harvestable crabs are and where egg-bearing females are not.
According to research, nor’easters during late summer and early fall help to transport crab larvae from the ocean into the bay. Early fall nor’easters result in movement of greater numbers of young crabs.