2021 Chesapeake crab season off to slow start

May 17, 2021

Philemon – In Greek mythology, a good old countryman living with his wife Baucis in Phrygia who offered hospitality to Zeus and Hermes when the two gods came to earth, without revealing their identities, to test people's piety. Philemon and Baucis were subsequently saved from a flood which covered the district.

Philemon Thomas Hambleton, otherwise known as PT, says the 2021 crab season is starting slow. The price tells the story. Crabs are scarce.

“We’re paying $200 per bushel to the watermen,” he said. “$210 for Miles River crabs.  They’re typically a little larger crab. Always been that way. We’ve never paid any higher than this for crabs.  The cool weather’s holding them back.”

Buddy Roe works on the docks and wharf at the PT Hambleton operation in Bozman, at the head of Grace Creek, west and south of St. Michaels.  I ran into him a week or so ago when a waterman brought in two bushels for a day’s work. He told me about the high price.

“Is that for number ones?” I asked.

“They haven’t shed yet this year,” said Buddy. “Right now they’re all number ones.”  

That means all the crabs in the baskets are the minimum legal size of five inches or better. 

PT said the May shed should be getting underway any day. The shed will bring peeler crabs and the peeler crabs will bring soft crabs.

“The crab season will turn out alright,” he said.  “Once they shed and the crabs get a little bigger.  I’ve seen slow starts and I’ve seen faster starts.  It’ll change.”

PT’s family has been dealing in oysters and crabs since the early 1940s when his father and mother set up a soft crab operation where the business now stands. The docks and wharf, freezers and coolers, and office for the retail and wholesale operation extend out over the creek. 

On the shore, a dozen or so refrigerated PT Hambleton trucks emblazoned with big blue crabs share edges of the drive-through area with the pick-up trucks of watermen. 

They dock at Hambletons and sell their oysters and crabs to PT.  In turn, he distributes and sells them all over the East Coast, from Canada south to North Carolina depending on the season. His ear is never far from the phone. The season picks up after Memorial Day.

Soft crabs to restaurants in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington DC. and New York City when product is plentiful.  Female crabs to Asian markets in Canada. “They like the females, especially the ones with eggs in them.  They’re sweeter, but they don’t like them if they’re poor.  In Ocean City Asian restaurants, they put steamed females on the buffet lines.”

PT also sells to picking houses throughout the region who pack crabmeat for the wholesale and retail markets.

Hard crabs to all the same places and more including two trucks every day to Ocean City, when the people are there, seven days a week. 

You get it - Hambleton’s is a busy place when the season kicks into high gear, trucks and boats coming and going at all hours of the day and night. 

“We typically buy oysters and crabs from 40 to 50 watermen. They’re a hardy bunch. I’d put them up against any watermen anywhere.  Hard workers. They’ll outwork most on the East Coast. If there’s something out there to go after, they’re going.”

Watermen provide hard crabs for the fresh market – crab feasts and  restaurants – and the peeler crabs that go into the sloughing tanks on the Hambleton wharf.

“There’s a very good market for soft crabs.  Freezers are what made it.  We used to get maybe $4 to $8 for a dozen soft crabs. In those early days we sold all of them in Baltimore at the market down by the harbor. But there was a lot of loss between here and there. Sometimes they would even send us a bill for crabs that had died, before we had even been paid for them,” said PT. 

“My mother started freezing as soon as freezers became available.  My sister and I minded the tanks, getting the soft crabs out of the water and watching for signs the peelers were starting to shed.  My mother - she was a saint - she cleaned the crabs and froze them. 

“Then demand started to grow and so did our business.  Soft crabs freeze very well.  They’re good for six or seven months.  Then we started getting $40, $50 and $60 a dozen. We have two restaurants up around  Chesapeake City that buy our last run of soft crabs in the late fall - about a hundred dozen or so – and that keeps them serving soft crabs all winter until the spring when the new ones start coming on.”

PT remembers a time when soft crabs were running strong and demand was high. There were 125 tanks piped with running creek water set up on the shore. “We were getting 100 to 125 dozen soft crabs a night, freezing them and taking them to the city.”

The Hambleton clan and its operation figures hard into the waterman culture of Bozman.  PT’s sons Phil and Todd work side by side with him in the crabbing and oystering operations.  Grandsons also figure into the mix, and the watermen selling to PT are like extended family.  Chandus Rippons, a buyer from Hooper’s Island - south of Cambridge on the Honga River – knew that feeling. He once advised a visitor to not say anything bad about anyone he ran into.  “Around here we’re all out of the same breed of dog.” 

PT said he and his wife, Tamra, have four sons and a daughter, four grandsons and a granddaughter, and three great granddaughters and a great grandson. “They all live within two miles of here. The whole family lives here.”

About that name Philemon Thomas. “Our roots go back to England and our people were way high into religion, fishermen. That’s where that comes from.  My father was the first Philemon Thomas, I’m junior, my son Phil is the third and his son, PT, is the fourth.”

When PT started as a waterman as a boy, working nets, trotlines and crab pots as far north as Chesapeake City and south nearly to Cape Charles, there were only three or four buyers In Talbot County like the Hambletons.  Now, he said, there are about 25.  The Delmarva seafood industry is no small notion. That’s why the health of the waters is so critical.

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