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What's Up Magazine

Last Call 
for Watermen

Apr 07, 2014 11:48AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Jim Lodico // Photography by Tony Lewis, Jr.

At 4:45 a.m. the streets of Annapolis are quiet. The last of the late-night revelers have long gone home and the only sound is the hum of a street cleaner as it makes its way around City Dock. But if you cross over the Spa Creek Bridge and make your way through Eastport, down Second Street to where it ends by the water, you’ll hear the thump, thump of a John Deer marine engine breaking the morning silence. Silhouetted against the work lights on their boat you’ll find the father and son team of Pat Mahoney, Sr. and Pat Mahoney, Jr. loading crab traps and bait and making final preparations for the day’s work. It’s a morning routine that the elder Mahoney has followed for nearly 45 years.
Image title “I started working as a kid at Sadler’s Crab House and dropped out of school at 16 to become a waterman. I was hooking school to go crabbing anyway,” the elder Mahoney says. After working with other watermen including Jimmy Cantler in the 1960s, by 1970 he had bought his first boat. His son received his commercial license when he was only 12 years old and was trot lining from his own skiff by the time he was 14. Together they own Wild Country Seafood in Eastport and are the last remaining commercial watermen working out of Maritime Eastport.

Image titleAt one time Eastport was a bustling hub of oyster shucking houses and watermen bringing oysters and crabs to market. According to the Annapolis Maritime Museum, at its peak in the early 1900s there were at least 18 shucking houses filled with workers shucking oysters by hand and canning them for shipment around the country.

Over time, however, both the oyster and crab populations declined and so did the shucking houses. Changes in the economy brought a new population and a changing industry to the Eastport neighborhood. Docks where local watermen once launched homemade boats now house private yachts and the marinas which serve them. McNasby’s, now the Annapolis Maritime Museum, is all that is left of the shucking and packing houses that once filled Eastport.

According to the senior Mahoney, it’s just too expensive for watermen to dock their boats in the marinas of Eastport. Even the best intentions to preserve the maritime aspect of Eastport can sometimes make it hard for the local watermen. The Mahoneys say they were initially denied permits for their seafood shop. “They said we weren’t a maritime business,” the younger Mahoney says.

Like all watermen, the Mahoneys live from season to season and at least during the early part of the 2013 crabbing season, things hadn’t been so good. According to the younger Mahoney the soft crab shed, the period when crabs molt and an indicator of the total crab population, was only half of what is normal.

It’s a big shift from the past winter when the Mahoney’s were enjoying one of the best oyster seasons they’d seen in 30 years. The elder Mahoney said that they had to go south to find them though. “Tropical Storm Lee wiped out the oyster bars up north. Down south it’s booming,” he says.

He adds, “It’s hard to get two good seasons back to back.” Even though the crabs are down now, the oysters were good and they did well with perch also.

By 5:40 a.m. The Mahoneys have dropped a line of 20 pots and are pulling the first of the day. The red sun reflects off the younger Mahoney’s face as he pulls up a pot and shakes out three to four crabs. He picks one up, turns it on its back, weighs it in his hand, feels its belly and throws it overboard because it doesn’t have enough meat.

“Trash crabs,” the elder Mahoney says. “A lot of people sell them but we throw them back.”

The younger Mahoney picks up another crab and throws it overboard, “We don’t keep the females either,” he says. “Let ’em spawn.”

As they pull the pots, they are probably throwing back as many crabs as they keep. Now that they own their own shop, they recognize the need to keep the quality high. If they were selling to a distributor, chances are they would take everything they can.

“It’s a long-term investment,” the younger Mahoney says.

After selling to distributors most of their careers, the Mahoneys decided it was time to open their own store. They said that at the time the distributors were paying $40 for a bushell of crabs and selling them for $300. Now that they’ve cut out the middle man, they are getting around $200 per bushel while the distributors are only paying $80. He said that if they were still selling to a distributor, they couldn’t afford to go crabbing during down times like this.
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“We’re out here early but most of them other boys are only crabbing every three days. If it wasn’t for the store, we wouldn’t be out here every day either,” the elder Mahoney says. He adds that it’s gotten so bad in some areas that the crabbers have packed up their boats and aren’t even going out.

“You pay $500 for bait and fuel to only catch $240 worth of crabs. That’s no way to make a living. That’s why lots of the crabbers right now are staying on shore,” he says. The younger Mahoney adds, “This year you can’t find them. Our phone is ringing off the hook with people looking for crabs. People get mad at you because you don’t have them. You think I don’t want to have them? You think I don’t want to sell crabs?”

Capt. Bob Switzer, longtime watermen on Tilghman Island, says that this past summer was one of the worst he’s seen. By late summer he had days where he’d pulled 500 pots and only cleared $50. He says that although the first couple of months started well, the crabs quickly dried up.

“The early season started well because we were catching females. Most of those females were left over from last year though because not all the females migrate like the males. That helps us in the spring.” Switzer says. “The male crabs have everyone worried because they’ve been so scarce. That has us worried for next year.”

Switzer said that the crabs are so scarce that in his 40 years of crabbing, he has never seen prices so high. The high prices aren’t enough to offset the scarcity though. There just aren’t enough crabs out there.
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The problem is when the crabbing is good, Switzer says they can’t sell them because everybody is catching them. “What we want is nice steady numbers,” Switzer says. “Boatloads of crabs bring the prices down because they glut the market.”

The younger Mahoney adds that when the crabbing is good, even the recreational crabber can hurt their business. “Some of those guys will go out and catch three to four bushels when they are only supposed to catch one. They’re selling them. It’s a fine line between too many and not enough crabs.”

Switzer adds that one of the concerns is that with such a low harvest, the state of Maryland may intervene and take steps to preserve the crabs. “I’m all in favor of conservation and conservation is important but we are all worried that they [the State of Maryland] are liable to take some drastic measures.” This might mean a shortened season, fishing quotas, limiting the number of males or other actions meant to preserve the crab harvest.

“They already limit the females. Right now there’s no limit on male crabs. Not that we’re catching enough to make limits anyway,” Switzer adds.

The elder Mahoney says that state regulations are one of the reasons they are out on the water so early. Commercial crabbers in Maryland are only allowed to work from a half-hour before sunrise to seven and a half hours after sunrise. If they don’t get out early, they can’t get in a full day of crabbing.

“We used to work all day from sun up to sundown,” the elder Mahoney says. “When it would get hot, we’d work at 3 a.m. Because when it gets hot it’s hard to get the crabs in before they die. We aren’t allowed to work like that anymore. Our hands are tied.”

There’s also another advantage to getting out on the water early. By getting out on the water at first light, there is a slight chance that they might keep their best crabbing spots secret from competing watermen just a little bit longer. Apparently there are no friendly agreements among watermen.

“You have to fight to get your pay,” the younger Mahoney says.

“Sometimes you really do have to fight,” the elder Mahoney adds.

Image titleAs they make their way south towards Thomas Point they point out a competing crabber, a boat that travelled some distance to crab, illegally dropping their pots. They point to the buoys marking the no crabbing zone and the crabbing boat passing behind the buoys dropping pots. Looking closer, you can see that the flag marking their pots is in the legal crabbing area but instead of placing their pots in a straight line, they are dropping them in a semicircle so that the flags are in the legal crabbing zone while a number of the pots are not.

“You see that little creek coming out of there,” the elder Mahoney points out. “By placing their pots inside of those buoys they’ll be the first pots the crabs will find as they come out of the creek. They are sort of blocking the others.”

According to Sergeant Brian Albert of the Maryland Natural Resources Police, illegal crabbing of this sort is not uncommon yet very difficult to monitor. It usually takes another watermen tipping them off, and watermen are often reluctant to report the actions of those they work around day in and day out. “They are a very tight knit group,” Sergeant Albert says. “We don’t often get tips. We do but it takes building trust and relationships with the watermen which can take years.” He added that the repercussions for turning in a fellow waterman, such as cut lines and other “paybacks”, often discourage crabbers from saying anything.

“They [poachers] make it bad on everyone else,” Sergeant Albert says. “Let’s just take rockfish as an example. If there are illegal nets and they have tons of fish, that counts against the annual allotment for everyone. Once the allotment is hit, the season shuts down. That can provide an incentive for those who are on the up and up to turn in those who aren’t.”

Image titleThe Mahoneys echoed Sergeant Albert’s comments about illegal rock fishing saying that when the DNR takes in a big haul of illegally caught Rock Fish it can bring an early end to the season which can ultimately cost them money.

While most of the crabbers are pleasant to work with and follow the rules, there are those few who can be difficult to get along with. They will do things such as drop their pots in a circle around another crabber’s traps or drop their lines over another crabbers lines causing them to tangle. When asked what they do when that happens, the younger Mahoney reaches above his head into the top of his boat and pulls a knife out of its sheath. “That’s when this comes in handy. Just cut the lines.”

He also notes the reason the other crabbing boat, the one dropping pots illegally, had come from so far away saying, “The boys back where they’re from run them out.”

As the morning continues they might be bringing in a half a bushel on a line of 20 pots. “On a good day we’d get four to five bushels on a row like that,” the younger Mahoney says. “We can come out here one day and put 20 bushels in by 10 o’clock.” He thinks about those 20 bushels for a minute and adds with a smile, “We’re still waiting for that day though.”

The feast or famine cycle doesn’t seem to phase either of the Mahoneys though. They’ve seen the good times along with the bad. “Just last week we caught crabs two days running. We thought it looked pretty good then it just stopped,” the elder Mahoney says.
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“It is what it is.” the younger Mahoney adds.

He summed it up by saying that crabbing is like playing the lottery. You put your fish in the basket and see what you can win.

A week later an unidentified waterman on the Magothy said that he pulled in six bushels of crabs in one day working a trot line. A few days after that he was having trouble filling a bushel.

“You take what Mother Nature gives you,” the elder Mahoney says but he adds that there’s nothing else he’d rather do. “There’s no phone ringing, no office. Just working on the water. It’s a good life.”