Crabbing: A legacy and livelihood in Maryland
MIDDLE RIVER, Md. (WBFF) -- When headlights are the only light, a new day begins for the crew aboard the Ellie Christine.
When there’s no moonlight and no sunlight, it’s the grays before dawn that Tony Conrad has been navigating for 17 years.
“I love it,” Conrad says, “better than a cubicle.”
Conrad, a farmer of the bay, says, “We need to be up a couple hours before sun at the boat and at our first crab pod before sunrise.”
He’s ready for a long day at sea. It’s a livelihood dependent on the catch.
“It’s a half hour before sunrise is the legal time that we’re allowed to start,” and only seven hours after sunrise, Conrad explains while pulling up the first pod of the day.
Conrad: “You have from April to December you’re trying to hustle in that short period of time to make your money for the winter.”
Over the last decade the Maryland crabbing industry has become more tightly regulated.
“There are thousands upon thousands of people who work in it and there are hundreds of thousands of people who depend on crabs as a sustainable piece of seafood,” Conrad says. “It’s an industry that needs to be helped and focused on to keep it alive.”
As the amber beams of sunlight fill the sky, blue crabs begin to fill Conrad’s boat. Pod after pod, from the water to the racks. A lucky few, too small or too soft get thrown back.
“It’s like Christmas,” Conrad says with a smile, “Everyday coming on the boat is like Christmas. You don’t know what your gift is in the pods. Every pod is like a new gift you’re opening up, is it a dozen crabs or three crabs or two dozen crabs. It’s the excitement of the day.”
Watermen and scientists want the crab population numbers to continue to rise. In the midst of the harvest, there is a real fear for the future.
“The population has been steadily going up over the last few years because the regulations have worked,” Conrad explains. “Also because the cleanliness of the Bay has been good and we haven’t had any natural disasters to flush fresh water down the Bay, so it’s been the perfect storm of things that happened.”
This year the state is ending the adult female crab season 10 days earlier than last year.
Conrad: “It helps us that they are protecting them and shutting it down earlier, but it more effects the Lower Bay crabber, that’s the predominate crab they harvest that time of year and it will affect their livelihood more than it would ours.”
Every regulation is closely followed, to continue a legacy and livelihood that has come to define Maryland.
“The Chesapeake is the backbone of the Bay” Conrad says, “And the crabbing industry is the backbone of the industry in Maryland.”
Eight hours and 11 totes later, Ellie Christine gets docked for the day. But Conrad and his harvest begin a second journey. His temperature controlled cab filled with crabs head to Conrad’s Crabs and Seafood Market in Towson.
More than 1,000 crabs fresh from the Bay. Conrad predicts they’ll all be gone within hours.
A unique perspective as a crabber and a crab house owner, “Sun’s up time to work.” He says, “A farmer doesn’t look at his watch and say it’s time to stop picking. No, you work until your work is done then you go to sleep, and get up and do it again the next day.”
Crabs provide for Conrad’s family, his crew and the employees at his store, and he hopes the sun never sets on his way of life.