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Spring chill puts a thaw in the local crab business

By MIKE JACCARINO Staff Writer, (609) 978-2010
Press of Atlantic City

The local crabbing season is off to a slow start, frustrating diners looking for a dish of their favorite blue-claw summer fare, according to crabbers and restaurateurs.

Several local restaurants say they haven't even begun serving hard-shell crabs. Normally, restaurants start around mid to late May.

"It might be a month behind," said Bob Nugent, owner of Ship Bottom Shellfish Company on Long Beach Island, Ocean County. "I haven't gotten any to serve. Maybe tomorrow or the next day."

At Mud City Crab House in Manahawkin, a sign bearing the bad news greeted patrons. "Mud City Crab House apologizes. We are out of Garlic Crabs," it read.

"We've had very little and what we do have sells out very quickly," said a Mud City waitress.

Norman Uman, owner of the Blue Claw Seafood and Crab Eatery in Burlington Township uses a commercial crabber who works the water off Somers Point. Uman blamed the cold water.

"The winter was mild enough that it should have meant a good crop, but the spring has been so cold," Uman said. "Even when the day is warm, the night is cold and the crabs don't swim around."

Nugent said the same thing: "From what I'm getting from my crabber, it's the cold and rainy weather."

But there are problems with this theory.

The National Weather Service said the ocean temperature is only a few degrees off from an average season.

An offshore buoy put the ocean temperature off Atlantic City at 57 degrees Monday morning. The average water temperature is 62 degrees for June, according to meteorologist Walt Nickelsberg.

Gary Cottrell, a commercial crabber out of Waretown, blamed over-crabbing. He works the area of the Barnegat Bay from the Forked River, near Lacey Township, to Barnegat.

He called this season, "The worst I've ever seen. Anyone who's been around this business will tell you the same thing." Normally, Cottrell will bring in eight to 12 bushels per day. This season, he said he is getting one-and-a-half to two bushels.

"I'll tell you this much, 10 or 12 years ago, I had a petition with close to 2000 signatures ... to try to reduce the amount of traps (used) by commercial crabbers.

"I'm to blame, too," he said. "The commercial fishermen, if he could put himself between two slices of bread, they probably would ... Over crabbing. Absolutely. No doubt in my mind."

Guys such as Nugent and Uman look to buy Maryland crabs when the season is bad. But that's not an option this year. "It's bad up and down the East Coast," said Uman.

"They're not shipping," Nugent said. "They have to take care of their demand locally, and they don't have enough for that."

Uman said he normally charges $1 per crab, but not this year. Since he's importing from Texas and Florida, he's charging $3.50 per crab.

"They're big and they're nice, but they're expensive," he said.

The Crab House in Middle Township, Cape May County, does not purchase local crabs, even when they are running. It buys Maryland crabs.

"The Maryland crabs are slow," Kitchen Manager Mark Ehrhardt said. "The water temperature is keeping them all out in the mud. We've been getting some Carolina crabs of nice size."

Cottrell normally checks his traps once a day during the season. Now he does it every two or three days, "just to make sure things haven't improved."

He's been on the water between 15 and 20 years. "Within the next year or two, I'm going to get out. I'm hanging out of sheer stubbornness, hoping it will turn around."

So are the people at the Mud City Crab House.

"People get frustrated," said employee Justine Kurdes. "Because we're Mud City Crab House, people expect crabs. They don't understand that the water is too cold."

To e-mail Mike Jaccarino at The Press:
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