The first few weeks of blue crab season are off to a slow start, but the catch should increase this month, according to Beaufort County commercial fishermen.
However, with low supply and high demand in the Northeast, the succulent crab are fetching $100 per bushel. Near Charleston, those prices are driving more people into the business.
But that hasn't been the case in Beaufort County waters, fishermen say.
"We used to have a whole lot more crabbers than we have down here now," Bluffton Oyster Co. owner Larry Toomer said. Decades ago, "we had a dozen or more full-time crabbers. There are probably only four people with traps in the water right now from Hilton Head to Savannah."
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Beaufort County has suffered low-yield crab seasons in recent years, so the rising per-bushel price hasn't been enough to offset rising bait and fuel prices, according to Toomer and Craig Reaves, owner of Sea Eagle Market in Beaufort.
However, the brackish waters in the estuaries around Charleston are packed with crab traps, which has some fishermen there and environmental officials worried about overfishing.
From 2011 to 2013, crabbing licenses issued by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources rose by 40 to about 400. A trap permit purchased with the license entitles its holder to 50 crab traps; additional traps can be bought by state residents for $1 per trap.
"It's a concern, generally speaking," said David Whitaker, assistant deputy director with the DNR Marine Resources Division. "Population declines, price increases, that's a downward spiral that could lead to an overfishing problem."
But that hasn't been the case in Beaufort County, where production has been slow, competition minimal and prices per bushel dip further into the season, Reaves added.
"It's not from overfishing," Toomer said. "Crabs are just like apples and oranges. Some years the stars are aligned where everything is good and you have a great spawn, and some years you just don't. I've seen it worse, and I've seen it better."
The (Charleston) Post and Courier staff writer Bo Peterson contributed to this report. Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.
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