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Md. crab harvest should equal last year's
Population stable, but at a low level

Associated Press

ANNAPOLIS -- A winter dredge survey, viewed as the year's best indicator of how many crabs lay hunkered down in the Chesapeake Bay, shows watermen can expect a moderate 2004 harvest about equal to last year.

"All the indicators suggest it'll be about as it was last year. The good news is the population is stable, although it's at a relatively low level," said Howard King, director of the Department of Natural Resources' Maryland Fisheries Service. "We're coming back from the bottom."

State fisheries biologists believe Maryland watermen will pull 20 million to 25 million pounds of crabs out of the bay this year. The season opened April 1 and ends Nov. 30.

Tropical Storm Isabel churned up just enough crabs last year to bring the harvest to about 26 million pounds as it wrapped up on Dec. 31, King said.

"When things settled down after the storm, crabs were very abundant," King said. "The storm did shake things up."

Last year's frigid winter and spring had produced such a dismal early catch that state scientists predicted state crabbers would see only 18 million pounds of crabs, which would have been the worst harvest in 25 years.

"It wound up not quite as dire as originally predicted," said Glenn Davis, a Maryland DNR fisheries biologist.

Even so, local crab houses and wholesalers continue to ship in crabs from the Carolinas and the Gulf of Mexico as they wait for the Chesapeake Bay's crab harvest to replenish itself.

The result is big, healthy - and expensive - crabs.

"Without crabs, us being in the crab house business, it's tough," said Cindy Bacon, whose family has run the bustling Obrycki's restaurant in Baltimore for 28 years.

Diners at Obrycki's now are feasting on fare from Louisiana, Texas and Florida and are paying $46 for a dozen large crabs, up $2 from last year, and $58 for a dozen extra-large, $4 more than last year. But owners hear regularly from patrons who are relieved the restaurant doesn't serve Maryland crabs, because they don't want to take away from the bay's slim supply, Bacon said.

"We'll do our part. If it means not getting them locally and paying a higher price in the meantime, we'll do it," Bacon said.

When the crabs are least active, from December through March, DNR and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science conduct the dredge survey by unearthing the crustaceans at 1,500 locations all over the bay.

"What we saw was the overall population was maybe a little bit lower than it was last year but basically in the same range we've seen in the last four to five years," said Davis, a leader of the survey.

Areas with fewer crabs than usual included the upper bay and Tangier Sound. More populated areas were the lower Potomac River, the Choptank River and the mouth of the bay.
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