Despite early season fears, Chesapeake blue crab selling for record prices

Published on
May 14, 2020

In March, the closure of most U.S. restaurants just as the blue crab season in Virginia and Maryland was getting started had retailers, processors, and watermen afraid that the bottom would drop out of the market.

Initial reports in local media indicated that pricing was off, in some cases, as much as 30 percent, and the fear was that the fishery would be in dire straits.

The reality, however, has been completely different, as processors and distributors are paying record-breaking prices for crab at the dock.

“Yes, this week [and] last week, the local guys have been getting USD 160 [EUR 148] a bushel for number 1’s,” Greg Cain, the founder of Inc. – an online retailer of crab based in Maryland – told SeafoodSource. “I’ve never seen it this high. It’s probably double the norm.”

Even with restaurants closed down, retail sales of crab in smaller outfits are at record levels. Johnny Graham, of Graham & Rollins Inc. in Virginia, is seeing both sides of the spectrum. Graham & Rollins has both a retail store selling crab and a processing facility, and on both sides crab prices are extreme.

“We’re seeing record sales in my retail store every day,” Graham told SeafoodSource. “The mom-and-pop retail stores are absolutely killing it.”

Graham said he’s having trouble keeping stock on the shelves, even when he’s charging more for crab than he ever has in the company’s 78-year history.

“My retail store is approaching USD 300 [EUR 278] a bushel for jumbo crabs, and they’re the first crabs to sell out every day,” he said. “We’re getting USD 75 [EUR 69.50] a dozen. We’ve never seen that price before, not here.”

At the start of the season, the fear was that an overabundance of crab would drive down prices paid to watermen in the area. Recruitment data taken by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council had indicated ample crab in the water, leading to expectations that there would be plenty of catch.

The reality, however, has been the opposite. Poor weather in April stunted the early season, and the amount of crab coming to the docks is miniscule. Supply and demand has naturally driven prices up as buyers try to get what they can.

“There simply are way too many people chasing way too few crabs at the moment,” Cain said.    

Graham said he’s in better shape than some, with certain processors practically sitting idle for lack of product.

“The picking houses are sitting here crying,” Graham said. “We’re not seeing the crabs.”

The restaurant closures, as well, aren’t affecting demand as much as many thought it would.

“Traditionally, the restaurants that would push demand don’t really open until mid-May and they’d start fairly slow,” Cain said. “So the closings really haven’t affected restaurant demand."

The quarantine and stay-at-home order, Cain said, seem to have actually caused demand to increase.

“On the flip side, people quarantining have created extra demand from people looking to spice up their home lives,” Cain said. “They can’t go out to eat, so whether it’s ordering online or braving it to their local seafood market (which is probably still open), crabs have become ‘night out’ alternative.”

Cain said he’s been witnessing that demand first-hand in the online market, to the point he’s had to hire more employees just to keep up.

“We went from a staff of 10 to 25 in four weeks,” he said.

On Graham’s end, sourcing any crab at all has meant paying a premium.

“That’s for high-end crabs, that’s for processing crabs, and that’s everything in between,” he said. “I can’t find either, and I’m paying a premium.”

Despite the current record prices, there’s still the looming fear that all of it could come crashing back down. Better weather and warming water may result in a sudden influx of crab, which may come at a time when those restaurants would have usually been ramping up business.

“I’d expect the market to correct to more normal levels over the next month as catch levels rise and those closed restaurants are slowly re-opening at reduced capacities,” Cain said.

When that will happen is anyone’s guess, but it’s likely a matter of when, not if, Graham said.

“It’s going to change here real, real soon, it always does,” Graham said.

Photo courtesy of StacieStauffSmith Photos/Shutterstock 

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