Crabbers say soft shell catch falling far below norm

Hanna Raskin

From the looks of local restaurant menus, Charleston appears to be awash in soft shell crabs. Diners who this weekend feasted on fried, sautéed and wood-roasted versions of the delicacy probably didn’t suspect they were enjoying the prizes of one of the worst harvests in recent memory.

Joe Pleasants of Fishnet Seafood, who last year produced 12,000 soft shells, hopes to come up with 4000 crabs before the dizzyingly-short season ends in the next week or so. Although the scarcity has pushed prices up slightly, Pleasants says the empty pots have frustrated his workers, who are paid a percentage of total sales.

“They’re not happy this year, but I told them, that’s the way it is,” Pleasants says.

Pleasants attributes the sharp decline in his catch to surging water temperatures. The sweet spot for shedding is in the low 60s, but a string of extremely hot days earlier this month coaxed water temperatures into the 70s. “It just kept going up,” says Pleasants.

It’s not clear exactly how temperature changes influence crabs, but in Pleasant’s three decades of experience, unseasonable weather almost always dooms a harvest. Very cold water can also upset the usual soft shell collection process, in which a large and handsome male crab is placed in a pot designed to capture peelers.

“I’ll tell you our biggest problem this year,” Pleasants says. “Our male crabs. They died. Normally, they live 5-10 days, but this year, they lasted two, three days.”

And the rusty males called up for pheromone duty didn’t break any records with their performance. Pleasants affectionately recalls a male crab who attracted females almost as fast as Pleasants’ crew could empty the pot.

“That crab, I kept him for a week,” Pleasants says. “It sounds like I had a pet. He was an excellent stud.”

This year, many pots had as few as three or four peelers when Pleasants checked them. His personal single-pot record is 67.

Soft shells only constitute about 3 percent of Pleasants’ crab business, but he years ago built a cinderblock building to house his two dozen tanks. During the two weeks that the season runs, the tanks are monitored 24 hours a day, since crabs begin to harden within hours of busting free of their shells.

“I love doing this,” an exhausted Pleasants says. “But I’m ready for it to be over.”