"I look for them when the first strawberries come off," said Capt. Grant Corbin, one of Deal Island's most skillful crabbers (you'll find two chapters about crabbing with him in William W. Warner's classic book, Beautiful Swimmers). Grant was talking about the "peeler run," when the Chesapeake's crabs slough (shed) for the first time each year, as water temperatures reach the mid-60s (Fahrenheit).
Capt. Lonnie Moore, CBF's Fleet Senior Manager, says that on Tangier Island, he looks for the locust trees to bloom. On the Severn River around Annapolis, Lonnie's locust tree cue is just as accurate. The locust blooms and their sweet aroma announce that beach-combing will turn up pale, limp crab shells that are hinged in the front and empty when examined. Somehow, the combination of air, water, and soil temperatures produce these natural cues to the Chesapeake's seasons.
"We don't get much sleep the first month," Grant Corbin notes. As his peeler pots fill with "rank" (about-to-shed) crabs, both he and his wife, Ellen, stay busy tending them 24/7 in their "floats" (shedding tanks). Ditto for other soft crabbers, from Capt. Bob Jobes in Havre de Grace at the head of the Bay to Grant's Deal Island neighbor, Roy Ford, and Tangier Island's Mayor, James ("Ooker") Eskridge.
Sloughing is a stressful process for blue crabs, which must survive the process some 21 to 23 times during their lives. The strenuous activity drives up their need for oxygen about six times. In the first peeler run's cooler temperatures, there is usually plenty of dissolved oxygen in the water. As summertime temperatures climb into the mid-'80s, however, sloughing mortality can go as high as 40 percent in waterways where nitrogen pollution drives algae blooms that cause lethal crashes in oxygen levels.
Two more problems for sloughing crabs are habitat loss and predation. Historically throughout the Chesapeake, the best protection for sloughing crabs has been vast meadows of underwater grasses. In the past 40 years, though, pollution has caused a brutal decline in those vital shallow water habitats. CBF's 2012 State of the Bay Report graded underwater grass beds at 20 out of 100, a D- and a drop from 22 in the 2010 report.
Between soft crab sandwiches and memorable days on the water, there is much to celebrate in the first peeler run. If we want to keep these runs strong, through, we're going to have to manage our harvests carefully and continue the struggle to restore their underwater grass habitats and the dissolved oxygen they need to keep growing. As always, following the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint is the key to a healthy Chesapeake.
--John Page Williams
CBF's Senior Naturalist
Learn more about Grant and Ellen Corbin's soft crab operation here or make plans to go crabbing with Capt. Grant or other skillful watermen and -women!
To fish for rock and specks in shallow, crab-sloughing territory, visit Capt. Kevin Josenhans' website, Capt. Ed Lawrence's website, or Capt. Chris Newsome's website.