As a criminal-justice major at Towson University, Tony Conrad once dreamed of a career with the FBI. But after four years of working in telecommunications, the lifelong waterman could no longer ignore what seemed a clarion call to catch crabs. “My cousin Billy was a waterman,” explains Conrad, 37. “My great grandfather was a waterman, [and] my great, great grandmother had a seafood restaurant in the 1800s.”
In 2003, Conrad retired from the corporate world to sell crabs and carry on his family’s legacy of catching crabs. He started out by selling his day’s catch to local businesses. Then, in 2007, Conrad and his wife, Andrea, decided to open Conrad’s Crabs & Seafood Market in Tony’s native Parkville.
But even owning a successful seafood business hasn’t turned the self-proclaimed “baybilly” into a landlubber. “I’ve been a waterman since I was an 8-year-old kid with a life preserver around my neck and a rope tied to the gunwale,” says Conrad. “I never understood why it felt so great to be on the water, but they say it’s genetic.”
Most mornings, Conrad is on the Hannah Marie (named for the couple’s 6-year-old daughter) with his crew at sunrise, plucking jimmy’s (highly coveted male crabs plump with meat) and sooks (mature female crabs) from some 600 crab pots brought up from the Chesapeake Bay. “I dream crabs,” he says, laughing. “It’s a sickness.”
Conrad is equally obsessed with maintaining quality control—once the crabs have been caught, Conrad employs a labor-intensive and somewhat scientific sorting system. While many crab operations don’t sort the stock until it’s long out of the water, Conrad’s crabs get sorted twice—once while still on the Hannah Marie and again at Conrad’s in a so-called “cold coffin” (a room at the back of the market with Arctic-like temperatures), where bushels of crabs skitter in sorting baskets. “If a crab is good, it should have a rock-hard sweet spot that means that it’s full of mustard and meat and won’t be light,” explains Conrad, pressing on a crab’s underbelly to make his point. “What makes us unique is that we squeeze every crab twice.”
More than anything, what drives Conrad is the pride he takes in promoting one of Maryland’s greatest natural resources. “I get mad when you walk into a local seafood place, and they say the shrimp is from Thailand and the salmon was farm-raised,” he says. “When you look at the state of Maryland [on a map], the Chesapeake is right in your face—you don’t see Arbutus or the Rocky Gap [State Park]. You see the Chesapeake Bay going through the whole state. Maryland is seafood.”