First, the good news: The Rotary Club of Annapolis Crab Feast returns to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium Friday.
The bad news: Less than half the usual number of crab feasters — around 1,000 people — are expected to break out their mallets. That means less money raised for local nonprofits. And two Anne Arundel vendors that had historically provided Chesapeake Bay crabs both closed permanently this year, forcing the Rotarians to buy their crustaceans on the Eastern Shore.
For Adam Higgins, vice president of Chesapeake Seafood Catering in St. Michaels, stepping up to supply one of the state’s largest crab feasts is a bittersweet milestone, and reflects the post-pandemic precarity of Maryland’s seafood industry.
Annapolis Seafood, where one of Higgins’ “best buddies” worked as a manager, shuttered on May 15. Shoreline Seafood, a Gambrills landmark, closed 10 days later. A marquee outside the iconic concrete lighthouse on Route 3 thanked patrons for 40 years of business.
Financial pressures facing the seafood industry are complex. There are the obvious losses from two years of canceled events because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many crabbers retired and those who remain are paying record prices for the bags of razor clams they use for bait, which used to be free, or close to it. Once out on the bay, crabbers are coping with catch restrictions and record low crab populations. And everyone — from boaters to truckers to caterers firing up gas grills — are shelling out top dollars for fuel.
“We are not cheap,” Higgins said.
As a result, adult crab feast tickets have increased by $20 this year, to $90 from $70 in 2019. Tickets are available online and at six Annapolis businesses. Feasters get all-you-can-eat large male crabs, Eastern Shore sweet corn, barbecue, draft beer, soda and water. For dessert, the annual bake sale and cake raffle includes (mostly) homemade goods from Rotarians.
A few store-bought treats will slip in, admitted Julie Snyder, publicity chair for the club but, “we encourage everyone to bake their own.”
Higgins wants to assure Annapolis diners that even though the crabs are now coming from across the Bay Bridge, they will be fresh.
“We are steaming on site,” he said. Chesapeake Seafood Catering is located on Spencer Creek just south of St. Michaels. The company buys directly from crabbers, who can pull their boats up to the dock, without selling to a middleman. On Friday, crews will load 125 bushels of live crabs onto five refrigerator trucks and bring the blues to Annapolis.
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“We are sourcing all of our crabs for this event locally,” Higgins said.
In early spring, Higgins said his company does sell some crabs from Louisiana, and this year’s bay harvest restrictions could mean sourcing some crabs from the Carolinas. But he draws a clear line in the sand when it comes to importing.
“I’ve never seen a South American crab come across this property,” Higgins said.
As recently as 2019, the Annapolis Rotary boasted that its crab feast was the largest in the world. Not this year. Higgins said he’s catering two larger crab feasts this month, one in Delaware and another in Ocean City. Both are fundraisers, and Higgins has great sympathy for the Rotary Club and others who may end up contributing less money for charity. “Prices are going up,” Higgins said.
In 2018, Rotarians netted $58,000 for their Crab Feast Crab Fund. This year’s pot of money will likely be smaller. Local nonprofits have until Oct. 9 to complete their applications and can receive up to $4,000 if selected for grant funding.
In 2020 and 2021, the club raised funds by hosting “Crabs to Go” events at the stadium. This year, Rotary Club members are focused on simply getting the in-person picking event off the ground with their new supplier, even if it means setting up fewer tables on the stadium concourse than in bygone years.
“We are so excited to be back together,” Snyder said.