"It has been an outstanding year so far for soft crabs. The mild winter temps have produced big runs in FL, GA and SC way ahead of schedule. I was talking to a supplier in Saxis, VA (just below Crisfield, MD) yesterday. His first peelers showed up March 20th (a record early date)! He can never recall having a big run in April like we have had this year. The cool weather over the last 10 days has prevented an avalanche of soft crabs from hitting the market and causing a price collapse. That will change this week with temperatures predicted to be in the 70's and 80's all week here and warmer in NC.
A peeler is a stage in the life cycle of a blue crab. Many watermen make a living targeting just peeler crab. Peelers are hard crabs that show an external sign that tell the watermen these particular hard crabs are about to shed. They are caught in a variety of ways including: peeler pots, bank traps, scrapes and traditional crab pots. In a peeler pot, a male crab is used as the bait to attract female peelers. Female crabs mate when they molt. This is how blue crabs (and all crustaceans) grow. They shed their shells and grow by roughly 30% each time.
When a fishermen comes in at the end of a day of fishing "peeler pots", he will sell them to another person who does nothing but shed the peelers into soft crabs. The "shedder" will count each peeler that the fishermen catches and pay him by the piece. When the market is hot, peelers go for $1.50 each. When the market is flooded, they get down to 25 cents. There is no "average day" in peeler potting, but a good crabber last year in May, catching peelers in the Rappahannock River for one of my best soft crab suppliers in Deltaville VA, had $6,000 worth of peelers in just 5 days!!
The "shedder" puts the peelers into a rectangular tank or "float". Water is circulated over each "float' which can hold up to 1000 peelers. It is not unusual for a shedder to run as many as 100 floats during a peeler run. That means a soft crab dealer, during a wide open peeler run, could have as many as 100,000 each potential soft crabs ready to shed out. Adding to the madness, these peelers must be watched 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. As soon as a crab comes out of its shell, it starts the process of hardening back up. Two hours later, it is the perfect soft crab. It can hold its claws up and it is firm enough to be shipped and survive the trip. Six hours after coming out of its shell, the crab has hardened so much it is difficult to serve as a soft crab. Taking the crab out of the water, stops the hardening process. As you can see, there is a very small window of opportunity to produce a good soft crab. Big soft crab operations have dozens of employees and can shed 1000 dozen in a single night. In the beginning of my seafood career, when I worked on the water, I shed soft crabs for years. My favorite was always the thunderstorms. The low pressure around the storms would trigger a "massive shed", where every peeler in the floats decided to"pop out" at the same time. That was insane, trying to "fish up" all of those soft crabs at once.
The Chesapeake Bay blue crab is, by anyone's definition, a totally sustainable species. The Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Recovery Program started 5 years ago and reduced the female crab harvest by 35%. The results were immediate and incredible. The blue crab population has exploded by 70% in just 3 years. We are seeing huge soft crab runs all over the Bay. Crabbers are making good money during the season. Picking houses have a reliable supply of raw material to produce local crabmeat with. Local restaurants can advertise selling crabcakes picked locally and soft crabs shed locally. Proper fishery management benefits the entire community, not just the species in question.
On any given day over the next couple weeks, our soft crabs will be coming from the following towns: Englehard, NC (Pamlico Sound), Wanchese, NC (Pamlico Sound), Deltaville Va (Rappahannock River), Saxis, Va (Pocomoke River, Tangier Sound) Crisfield, MD, Deale Island, MD and Point Lookout, MD. The peeler runs moves up the Bay like a wave and later in May we will get soft crabs from as far north as the Susquehana Flats (Havre de Grace, MD) where the Chesapeake Bay begins."