Born and raised in the tiny riverfront town of Leipsic, Craig Pugh has served as mayor for more than a decade. But don’t expect to see him in a suit and tie, sitting in an office. You’re more likely to find him wearing a checked shirt, knee-high boots and a cap, working aboard his boat, Hope So. Pugh represents a town, but he also stands for a way of life—the mayor is a commercial crabber.
Unlike many watermen, Pugh wasn’t born to the work, but he learned early that he was more comfortable around mud than the grease of his parents’ mechanic shop. “I was fascinated by the river and the goings-on there.”
As a kid, he earned money by scrubbing the algae and barnacles off the cork marker buoys for crab traps. He later worked weekends with an older hand to relieve full-time crabbers. Today, conditions permitting, Pugh works the water every day of the season, maintaining a balance between harvesting enough crabs to meet demand and taking no more than the market can handle.
On a typical day during the season, he wakes at 3:30 a.m. He breaks up the frozen bait he’ll use throughout the day, then he heads out to check the pots and make any necessary repairs. He is on the water by dawn, when the surface is calmest and the weather is cool. Heat puts live crabs at risk once they’re out of the water. “Weather can hold us back, but our industry can harvest seven days a week,” he says.
Commercial crabbers run from north of the Delaware Memorial Bridge to Lewes, but fuel and time dictate where they go each day. They need to dock early enough to market the day’s catch.
Their customers come from as far as Virginia. Seldom do crabbers travel to sell. “There aren’t enough hours in the day to do what we do,” Pugh says.
Nor are there as many people working the water. It’s a hard living. Crabbing does not support a family all year, says Pugh, who also manages private wildlife areas to make ends meet. Boat maintenance, fuel and equipment drive up overhead. And the fishery is closed, meaning the number of licenses is strictly limited. Anyone who wants to crab commercially must buy an existing license from someone else, so they don’t come easily.
So watermen crab because they love it. Pugh says more people should realize that the industry is as much a part of Delaware as banking, chicken farming, DuPont and tourism. “It defines this area,” he says. “We’re very proud of it.”