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Watermen off to good crab-harvesting season

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These “whales” (large soft-shell crabs) were caught in the Piankatank River and are packed and ready to be sold to a buyer who distributes them to New England states. Jarrett Williams (above) helps his father Joey Williams and grandfather Thomas Williams at their crab operation in Remlik. Williams & Son Seafood Inc. harvests, sheds, packs and sells soft-shells. (Photo by Larry Chowning)

by Larry Chowning

Soft-shell crabs are in season and local restaurants are serving up delicious, fresh, fried and sautéed soft-shells on sandwiches and as entrees.

Throughout the Tidewater region, part of nature’s lifecycle is the spring run of crabs where thousands of blue crabs arrive to local waters to shed their shells (exoskeletons), and local crabbers reap the financial rewards of harvesting and selling soft-shells.

Chesapeake Bay, Rappahannock River and Piankatank River crabs are sold to buyers up and down the East Coast and often end up in restaurants in New York City, Boston and other urban markets.

Joey Williams and his father Thomas of Williams & Son Seafood Inc. in Remlik crab the Piankatank and Rappahannock rivers for most of the crab season. They retail soft-shells by the dozen and jimmie (male) hard crabs by the bushel at their operating facility. They also sell to wholesale seafood buyers who distribute crabs up and down the East Coast.

“It’s been a good year for us,” said Joey, “but not everybody has had a good spring. It has been cold and wet and for whatever reason the crabs seem to have stayed in the smaller rivers, such as the Piankatank and Ware rivers.

“The guys who work the [Chesapeake] Bay and larger rivers like the Rappahannock and York have had to contend with bad weather most of the spring,” said Joey. “The Piankatank is so protected it is almost like working in a pond.

“We’ve had more whales (large soft-shell crabs) than I’ve ever seen,” he said. “VMRC’s blue crab stock report [that came out in April] said we were going to have an abundance of small crabs, but we have not seen that. We’ve been seeing more larger soft-shells than usual and fewer small female peelers.”

Peelers are crabs in a molting or shedding state that become soft-shells when their hard shells fall off.

The price has stayed up “pretty good”, said Joey. “We have been getting $30 a dozen for whales (wholesale) and selling [retail] hard-crabs [jimmies] for $100 a bushel.”

Crab prices have stayed up in part because the North Carolina peeler run hit about the same time as the Chesapeake Bay run. “When the runs start in North Carolina before us, they get the better prices for soft crabs,” said Joey.

Memorial Day weekend is a good time for the crab market as visitors and warm-weather residents come to Middlesex County and the surrounding area to enjoy the ritual of steaming hard-shell crabs, picking the meat, and enhancing the flavor by dipping it into melted butter or seafood sauce. Oh yeah, with a soda or bottle of beer to chase it down.

VMRC’s crab survey shows solid blue crab stock improvement, Commissioner John Bull said in the April stock report. “We now have back-to-back years of solid growth in this important fishery. The crab stock has been on a roller coaster for most of the last decade. We’ve seen a few great years of reproduction followed by awful years of abundance. Two years does not make a trend, and this news inspires both wary optimism and cautious management,” said Bull.

The results of the 2016 Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey show the total population of blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay climbed 35% to a total of 553 million. This is the fourth highest level since 1996, and builds on last year’s 38% boost in abundance, according to VMRC.

The stock improvements were found in both female and male crabs, as well as juveniles and adults, the report stated.

The spawning female stock almost doubled, from 101 million to 194 million, while the adult male stock more than doubled, from 44 million to 91 million. These are the second highest levels recorded since 1995 and bode well for a good crab harvest this year, stated the report.

Still, this level of spawning age female crabs remains below the scientifically recommended target of 215 million, but well above the minimum safe threshold of 70 million, the report stated.

The juvenile abundance increased only slightly, from 269 million to 271 million, which is just above the average level of juveniles recorded over the past 30 years. The bay-wide crab harvest last year increased by 42%, to 50 million pounds.

“We are very pleased with the way this season has started,” said Joey. “Throughout the season, however, we will see ups and downs in prices and in catches, but that’s the way it is in the crab business.”

posted 05.25.2016

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