Why Is There a Blue Crab Shortage in Maryland?

Soaring prices for the catch have led many restaurants to remove favorite dishes from the menu during peak season.

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Along the Chesapeake Bay shore in Maryland, Bobby Jones has two restaurants known for the magic they work with jumbo lump Chesapeake blue crab. But because of a recent surge in prices, he has had to start the crucial summertime season without his state’s signature dish: crab cakes.

“It’s not coming down at all,” Mr. Jones, the chef and co-owner of Ketch 22 and the Point Crab House & Grill, said of crab prices, which forced him to temporarily take the cakes off his menu. “We’re not seeing a change, and I’m not going to buy a lower-quality ingredient, so I’m just riding it out.”

As the pandemic has waned in the Mid-Atlantic States and more people feel safe eating out again, a sudden demand for crab has hit the market at the worst time. It’s driving up prices, and making it impossible for some restaurants to break even on their crab dishes. Many are turning to other types of seafood.

“When it rains, it pours,” said Zack Mills, the chef at True Chesapeake Oyster Company in Baltimore, where the price surge prompted him to reduce an entire section of his menu dedicated to blue crab to a handful of favorites. He has raised the price of his crab cake sandwich to $24, from $19.

He said the price he pays for crab, usually around $16 a pound, has recently hit a high of $34 a pound.

Watermen and suppliers said the price increases have been a long time coming, driven by several factors.

Prices on crab have been escalating over the last two years, said Sam D’Angelo, the owner of Samuels & Son Seafood, a wholesaler in Philadelphia. But the prices became more acute when the country began to reopen, he said, rising by 50 percent or more.

Since last year, when former President Donald J. Trump suspended visas that normally allow hundreds of thousands of foreigners to work temporarily in the United States, the fishing and crab industries have had trouble filling jobs. There aren’t enough workers to catch or process seafood to keep up with demand. In Maryland, many families that supported themselves for generations by fishing and crabbing are leaving the business.

“It’s not an easy way of life,” said Robert T. Brown Sr., the president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association and a sixth-generation waterman. As an independent worker, Mr. Brown has had to fund his own retirement plans and health insurance, benefits that many young locals now seek from corporate jobs.

“We send our kids to school, we send them to college,” he said. “A person doesn’t go to high school, grade school or community college for some type of fishing and become a waterman. You don’t have your kids educated to pick crabs.” Seasonal workers, he said, have traditionally filled a critical labor gap.

Heather Mizeur, a Democrat running for Congress from a district on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, said the Biden administration can help address the labor shortage by authorizing more of the temporary visas. “The seafood industry out here on the shore desperately needs a reliable work force to process the crabs that our watermen harvest,” Ms. Mizeur said in an email.

While crabbers in the upper Chesapeake Bay, near Baltimore, are having better luck with their supply this year, Mr. Brown said that fishing on the Potomac River hasn’t yielded much crab. Blue catfish have become an invasive species in Chesapeake Bay, feeding on crab.

“It really just seems to be the perfect storm,” said Mr. Mills, of True Chesapeake Oyster Company.

In Baltimore, the restaurateur John Minadakis said that the smell of steamed crabs usually fills the air in summer, and that the price hike is hindering restaurants as they try to come back.

“It’s hurting us at a terrible time,” he said. “The summertime is crab season in Baltimore. There’s nothing like it, sitting outside with your friends cracking crab and drinking local beers. It’s a Maryland pastime.”

Mr. Minadakis, an owner of Jimmy’s Famous Seafood, said he had to raise the price of his crab cakes and lower the price of drinks to offset the increased costs for his blue-collar customers who buy them together.

“The one option that’s never came to my mind is changing the recipe, because my father created the recipe 47 years ago,” he said. “When you think Jimmy’s, you think crab cakes.”

Mr. Minadakis said he is lucky that his customers have remained loyal despite the pandemic and the higher prices, even if they can’t afford the crab cake.

“It’s all about seeing those people face to face and enjoying fries with them and a beer,” he said. “The money comes and goes, but the memories last forever.”

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