Blue crab prices hover around $400 a bushel as crab population hits 33-year low

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Chesapeake Bay hard-shelled crabs sell very well at the Grappling Crab Shack in Lower Allen Township, especially during the summer months.

This year, customers will shell out more for their dose of regional delicacy as abundance of blue crabs drops to its lowest level in 33 years. Grappling co-owner Rob Rapsey said he wasn’t too worried.

“It’s a bit of a slower start. I think that’s kind of the way business is. Years and years ago with the crabs,” Rapsey said.

The going price for a bushel of large crabs at Grappling is $399, about $45 more than last summer, he said. Over the next few weeks, Rapsey predicts the quality, size and price of crabs will improve.

An annual blue crab population survey conducted by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science raises some concerns. This year’s Baywide Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey counted 227 million crabs, the lowest number seen since the study began in 1990.

The number of female crabs has fallen from 158 million crabs in 2021 to 97 million, while the population of male crabs has fallen to 28 million, which officials called “the lowest abundance of adult males on record”. The number of juvenile crabs was 101 million crabs, down from 86 million in 2021, but the third straight year of below-average recruitment.

The survey helps manage the number of blue crabs that can be harvested each year by commercial and recreational fishing operations.

Several reasons are attributed to the population decline, including factors such as changing ocean conditions and rising water temperatures, the impacts of storms and currents on crabs, and an increase in predators such as the blue catfish and the red drum, according to the Washington Post.

Officials said the number of female crabs that could spawn in the coming year remains above the management threshold of 72.5 million crabs for the eighth consecutive year. This basically means that there are enough females to produce a healthy population of crabs next year.

Curt Engle, owner of Harbor House Crabs in Swatara Township, said they source blue crabs from Maryland and Delaware, as well as North Carolina and Texas. He said the season got off to a slow start but prices had actually fallen over the past two weeks.

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“We hear these numbers and one year they’re up, one year they’re down. We always get crabs. We have no problem getting crabs every year,” he said.

Harbor House’s larger-sized bushels of crabs sell for the $400 range, but shoppers can also take advantage of a special offer of three dozen crabs for $69.99. Crabs typically grow throughout the summer season, with availability and size ideal in early fall, Engle said.

Bam’s Crab Place in Steelton sells hard shell crabs of various sizes and prices. Owner Tamar Gann said although customers complain about the prices, they still buy them. A dozen large crabs cost about $36 to $48 and jumbo about $60 a dozen, she said.

“They get upset because no matter how you look at it, everyone wants cheap crabs. I try to do my best. I don’t overcharge people,” Gunn said.

At Grappling, where crabs come from the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay, some customers are changing their buying habits, asking for a dozen crabs for a bushel, Rapsey said. But, he noted that people still want crabs, including one customer who indicated he would cut other expenses to treat himself to crabs this summer.

Rapsey said they only buy male crabs, bypassing females except at the end of the season to ensure enough females are available to spawn.

“I think if you keep putting out females all year round, we’re going to have more and more problems,” he said. “Our philosophy is that we will sell the males.”

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