Crabber keeps fishing in family

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DEER ISLE, MAINE – Kelly Pratt, ninth generation Islander, has deep roots
in this part of the Maine coast. Legend has it her great-great-grandfather,
Julius Heanssler, found his way to a cove here in the late 1800s in a row boat and
never left. For generations, fishing has been the family’s livelihood, and Pratt, 36,
keeps that tradition alive. She helped on her dad’s lobster boat, has her own
crab-picking business, and is married to a lobsterman.

Tucked inside the inlets and coves of Sunshine Road under the dramatic light of
early evening, Pratt prepares to pick and package a crate of Peeky Toe crabs
(approximately 100 pounds, or more than 200 crabs) for sale to local markets and
beyond. She’s had her own business for two years, and before that she picked for
10 years with her aunt and uncle.

This scene is not as common as it used to be in these parts. In the yard behind her
home is her newly built ”crab kitchen,” where all the action takes place. Its
screened-in porch houses two huge pots that cook and cool the crabs. Inside the
kitchen, the crabs are split apart, refrigerated, picked, and packaged. This whole
operation once took place outside in her Uncle Dick’s yard and garage, until Maine
issued new regulations on cottage industries.

These regulations ended some home businesses. Small home kitchen operations,
where women picked crabmeat to make pocket money, are all but gone in the
Deer Isle-Stonington area, down from about 400 to 40. Pratt hopes this season’s
profits will pay for the expenses she incurred to stay in business.

Survivors like Pratt make the adjustment. Her screened-in porch ”is to protect
from airborne bacteria,” she explains. In the double sink, she dilutes bleach to soak
and clean her utensils, and has thermometers to check the crab for doneness.

Minette Billings, manager of the North Atlantic Seafood Co., laments the
diminished supply of pickers, but buys only from state-approved operations.

”These girls are really good and their stuff is the best,” she says. ”I sell it as fast as
they can pick.”

Life at the home of a crab picker means everyone is involved. In the kitchen, the
atmosphere is relaxed but busy. Country music plays on the radio, and sons
Jeremy, 12, and Andy, 11, are hanging around playing with a Game Boy and
helping make a big sign for the roadside that says, ”Kelly Pratt’s Fresh Picked
Crabmeat.” Everyone takes turns helping bait the traps that husband Jonathan sets
in the waters off Eastside Cove in Jericho Bay.

Jeremy explains the process of crab picking, with machine-gun speed. The crabs
are caught in the same traps as the lobsters and then crated. The crabs are taken
from the crate (not a favorite job, as the crabs pinch), placed in a huge basket, and
hung from a rope and winch system. Pratt swings the basketful of live crabs over
the vat and lowers it into about 30 gallons of boiling water. The crabs then cook for
40 minutes, or until they reach an internal temperature of 180 degrees. When they
are done, Pratt raises the basket of steaming crabs, and plunges them into cold
water.

The crabs are then pulled apart and separated into baskets of bodies, claws, and
legs. The bodies are picked while still warm with a small tool that looks like a seam
ripper. Pratt cracks the legs and claws with a tack hammer, and the meat is
scooped out. There are about 10 crabs to a pound of meat, and on a good day,
she will pick 20 pounds; nearly all are spoken for before her husband’s boat docks.

Pratt says picking can be a ”lonely occupation,” but often the women will help each
other. Tonight, Molly MacDonald, a friend and fellow picker with her own
business, comes by. MacDonald swiftly pulls a crab from the bubbling water. The
thermometer is inserted into its body and reads 160 degrees. Back in it goes until it
reaches 180. Once it does, the pace of activity increases to a speed only achieved
by the experienced and admired by the uninitiated. Hot crabs spill onto the counter
for McDonald and Pratt to break, tear, and toss. A task that looks as if it would
take hours is completed in about 30 minutes.

Jonathan Pratt comes in to test his haul, and cracks the claw of a crab with the butt
of his knife. Deftly, the tip of the blade slips the warm meat from the shell and he
holds out an offering. The briny sweet taste is simple and pure.

”Doesn’t get any better than that, does it?” says the tanned lobsterman. With hands
and shells and crab flying, but never missing a beat, his wife and McDonald chat,
and to the amusement of all, over the radio comes the song ”Take This Job and
Shove It.”

April through September is picking season, and Pratt picks about three times a
week.

She also has a catering business specializing in shore dinners (lobster, clams, and corn), and she cooks at a campground. In fall and winter, she sews colorful quilts
for sale during the summer.

After three hours, more than 200 crabs are boiled, soaked, cracked, and sorted.
Bodies are picked, and shreds of white and red-flecked crabmeat fall into a
growing mound. Pratt is only half done, though. The remaining claws and legs are
refrigerated for picking tomorrow. It’s 10:30 p.m., but before she can turn out the
lights, puddles of crab juice need mopping, counters need wiping.

When asked if she has time for a hot bath before bed, Pratt, flushed from the heat
and activity, says, ”Now wouldn’t that be nice.”

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