Watermen still finding ways to make a living with crabbing
Season gets off to strong start
Paul Kellam was in his walk-in cooler sorting crabs one afternoon last week just before he stopped to talk. Crabs have been keeping him busy this spring and early summer — so busy that he hasn’t put his own crab pots in the water.
“I got my boat ready but I haven’t gone out yet,” he said.
He opened Kellam’s Seafood in Ridge 12 years ago, and this is one of the better crab seasons he’s seen during that time.
“Crabs have been running good,” Kellam said. “This is the best spring we’ve had in a number of years. All the guys have had a pretty good year.”
That’s what has kept him off the water himself this year. Kellam buys crabs from other watermen and retails many of them to people from all over St. Mary’s and southern Calvert counties.
That takes care of the biggest crabs, the ones his customers crave. He also had five crab pickers come in that morning to pull the meat out of the smaller ones, which he sells out of his store and to restaurants around the area whose menus wouldn’t be complete without entrees featuring it. Commercial crab picking is just about a lost trade on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake; Kellam has been told his may be the only operation in St. Mary’s still hiring people to do it.
Kellam wasn’t born into the seafood business. In fact, he was born in Bethesda. But his father had a charter boat license, and the family moved down to St. Mary’s during Paul’s late teenage years. He worked on the charter boat, and then by the time he was old enough, he said, he wanted to go out on his own as a waterman.
Kellam also married into a family of experts 34 years ago. While Kellam was talking last week his brother-in-law, Mark McKay, drove up in a pickup packed with bushels of crabs. McKay figures he’s a third- or maybe fourth-generation waterman.
Kellam’s father-in-law, Bobby McKay, started catching and selling soft crabs when he was 10 years old. In October he’ll be 83.
When Bobby McKay was a child, his father built him a rowboat. “I’d crab around this cove before school,” he said from his home in Ridge, gesturing to the shoreline of St. Jerome Creek where the boat Lady Marian, now operated by Mark, is docked. “Sometimes I’d catch two or three dozen [soft crabs] if the tide was right … you catch them on the outgoing tide.”
After school he’d sell them to Rob Lewis and later Charlie Davis at what is now Courtney’s Seafood Restaurant on Smith Creek.
Bobby McKay graduated in 1951 from nearby St. Michael’s School, which then included high school grades. He began working on the water with his dad after high school. “Except for a couple of years when I was in the military, it’s all I’ve ever done,” he said.
These days, his eyesight isn’t good and he confines his work mostly to tending to the peelers that his son Mark brings in. Peelers are crabs that are about to shed; they are kept in floats — plastic trays with creek water circulating through. Bobby McKay monitors them, watching the back fin as it changes color. When it turns red, he knows the crabs are about to shed. When they do, he pulls them out to sell as soft crabs. As he talked Tuesday afternoon he answered a steady stream of calls on his cellphone from people asking him what crabs he and Mark have to sell.
His father used to like to put out pound nets to catch finfish. “He loved pound nets,” Bobby said, and he started working with his dad after high school. But those were the days before nylon nets, and the cotton nets used to rot in the hot summer water. He and his father would repair them as they got smaller and smaller.
Bobby told his dad he was going to strike out on his own and started crabbing.
In those days, watermen sold crabs by the pound. Early in the season they’d bring 8 to 10 cents a pound, and a bushel weighed about 45 pounds. After the Fourth of July, the price dropped to about 3½ cents a pound. That comes out to less than $1.60 a bushel. “Of course, 5 cents would buy a big candy bar back then,” he said.
“We never made a lot of money,” he said. “You lived with what you made. But we always enjoyed it.” He and his wife,
Marian, had six children, and they helped out when they were in high school, though Mark is the only one currently making his living on the water.
The price per bushel is better these days. This week he told his customers No. 1 males are $120 a bushel. No. 2s are bringing $70 and females are going for $50 a bushel.
But expenses are a lot higher too. Paul Kellam figures that the cost of bringing a bushel of crabs into his seafood operation was about onethird less when he started the business a dozen years ago.
That’s why the strong run of crabs so far this year is welcome. Right now, in fact, there are too many crabs for the market, he said.
That market has changed, Kellam said. There are a lot of crabs, but people don’t eat them all the time anymore. Now crabs are more of a specialty item customers buy to mark an occasion.
“It used to be seafood was cheap and watermen dealt on volume,” he said “Now it’s completely the opposite. When a glut of crabs comes on, there’s no way to handle them anymore.”
So Kellam said last week he might start wholesaling crabs again. That’s what he used to do before he opened his own place, hauling them up to the city. He still has four or five guys he can sell to in Jessup, and some carryout places around Washington, D.C.
But he doesn’t expect the good run of crabs to last much longer. “I’m looking for them to drop off any day now,” he said last week. “They’ve been running three weeks now.”
If the crabs keep coming, Kellam said the retail price at his store might decline just a bit. This month, No.1 males are going for $35 a dozen, No. 2s are $25 a dozen and females are $20 a dozen. Come October, the prices for a half bushel will drop, he said, and he’ll stop selling crabs Thanksgiving week.
Kellam and others have theories about why the crab harvest has rebounded recently. Regulations that restrict the catch of females obviously help some, because there are more of them left in the water to spawn, Kellam said. But there are also fewer croakers and rockfish so the crabs aren’t facing as many predators. Then, too, there aren’t as many watermen out on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries as in earlier eras.
As for why the crab harvest is less stable and reliable than it once was, Bobby McKay has some theories. Once watermen started using diesel motors they started “running from end of the bay to the other,” he said. “That’s when crabbing dropped off.”
“When I started out a license allowed up to 100 pots; a few years later it was 200, then it went to 400 and eventually they took all the limits off of it,” he said. When crab pots were pulled up by hand instead of hydraulically as they are now, McKay said, a waterman could fish maybe 150 or 175 pots a day.
Back when he first started crabbing, he said, he and his father used to make the crab pots every year. This was before zinc bars were introduced to stop electrolysis that ate away at the pots, he said, and the pots would fall apart by September. Now, with the zinc bars, they can last four or five years, which extends the season each year. So does dredging crabs up from the mud crabs bury themselves in during cold weather. “It was just more and more pressure, until people were taking as many as the bay would produce,” McKay said.
And the water quality has been degraded, by among other things nutrient runoff that feeds unnatural algae bloom that rob the water of oxygen. McKay said he stopped fertilizing his lawn to keep nitrogen out of the water at the home he built in 1964 near his father’s house. If everyone would cooperate with bay cleanup efforts it would help, he said, but they don’t.
As for Kellam’s Seafood, it’s proprietor says that he opened the place in 2004 because he figured that people were moving down to the area so fast, the market was right. Charter boats in the area were busy and nearby Point Lookout State Park was attracting record crowds.
“But then gas prices went crazy,” Kellam said, then the economy soured and people stopped coming down his way.
Still, he said. “I guess I’m doing OK … I’m still here.”
Paul Kellam sorts crabs as his seafood business in Ridge. Kellam sells crabs in St. Mary’s and southern Calvert counties. Below, Bobby McKay answers a call from a customer outside his home in Ridge.
Bobby McKay of Ridge checks a peeler crab.