The Rotary Club Crab Feast returns after the pandemic break, but smaller and with a new blue crab supplier – Capital Gazette

First the good news: The Rotary Club of Annapolis Crab Feast returns Friday to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

The bad news: Less than half the usual number of crab feasters — about 1,000 people — are expected to break out their clubs. That means less money is raised for local nonprofits. And two Anne Arundel dealers that had shipped crab from the Chesapeake Bay in the past both closed permanently this year, forcing Rotarians to buy their crustaceans on the East Coast.

For Adam Higgins, vice president of Chesapeake Seafood Catering in St. Michaels, the move to deliver one of the state’s biggest crab feasts is a bittersweet milestone and reflects the precarious state of Maryland’s seafood industry in the wake of the pandemic.

Annapolis Seafood, where one of Higgins’ “best buddies” worked as a manager, closed on May 15. Shoreline Seafood, a Gambrills landmark, closed 10 days later. A marquee in front of the iconic concrete lighthouse on Route 3 thanked customers for 40 years of business.

The financial pressures facing the fishing industry are complex. There are the apparent losses from two years of canceled events due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many shrimp fishermen have retired, and those that remain are paying record prices for the bags of razor clams they use as bait that used to be free, or almost free. Once crab are in the bay, they face catch restrictions and record low crab populations. And everyone — from boaters to truckers to caterers firing up gas grills — is spending top dollar on fuel.

“We’re not cheap,” Higgins said.

As a result, adult crab festival tickets are up $20 this year to $90 from $70 in 2019. Tickets are available online and from Six Annapolis Businessit. Gourmands get large male crab at will, east coast candy corn, grilled food, draft beer, soda, and water. For dessert, the annual bake sale and raffle includes (mostly) homemade Rotarian goods.

A few store-bought goodies will slip in, admitted club advertising chair Julie Snyder, but “we encourage everyone to bake their own.”

Higgins wants to reassure diners in Annapolis that although the crabs are coming from across the Bay Bridge now, they will be fresh.

“We steam locally,” he said. Chesapeake Seafood Catering is located on Spencer Creek south of St. Michaels. The company buys directly from Crabbers, who can tow their boats to dock without selling to a middleman. On Friday, crews will load 125 bushels of live crab onto five refrigerated trucks and take the blues to Annapolis.

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“We source all of our crab locally for this event,” Higgins said.

Earlier in the spring, Higgins said his company was selling some crab from Louisiana, and this year’s laurel crop restrictions could mean sourcing some crab from the Carolinas. But when importing, he draws a clear line in the sand.

“I’ve never seen a South American crab on this property,” Higgins said.

As recently as 2019, the Annapolis Rotary boasted that its crab festival was the largest in the world. Not this year. Higgins said he’s hosting two major crab festivals this month, one in Delaware and one in Ocean City. Both are fundraisers, and Higgins has great sympathy for the Rotary Club and others who may give less money to charities. “Prices are going up,” Higgins said.

In 2018, Rotarians raised $58,000 for their Crab Feast Crab Fund. This year’s pot of money will probably be smaller. Local non-profit organizations have until October 9th to complete their applications and may 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 in the arena than in previous years.

“We’re so excited to be back together,” Snyder said.

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