Wa­ter­men still find­ing ways to make a liv­ing with crab­bing

Sea­son gets off to strong start

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By RICK BOYD rboyd@somd­news.com

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.”

STAFF PHO­TOS BY RICK BOYD

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.

STAFF PHOTO BY RICK BOYD

Bobby McKay of Ridge checks a peeler crab.

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