Time has come to give crab mallets a little rest

This Just In...

June 07, 1999|By DAN RODRICKS

COULD a person from Wisconsin, where the state motto is "Eat Cheese or Die," go a year without chowing down on Cheddar? Could a Texan go without steak? Could someone from Pennsylvania Dutch country say no to shoofly pie? Could a San Franciscan lay off the Rice-A-Roni for 12 months?

Could a Marylander abstain from crabs for a year?

Tough one.

Eating steamed crabs from the Chesapeake is a time-honored tradition in Maryland. As I write this, I crave them. Unless you're a total veg-head, eating crab meat in any form -- crab cake, crab dip, crab imperial, crab soup, or the wacky crab cake fluff -- is something you do in these parts. Without thinking much about it.

But crabs aren't like cheese, steak, shoofly pie or Rice-A-Roni. We don't make them or grow them. They're a natural resource, out of plain sight until we harvest them. And they haven't been doing so well.

Even watermen in Virginia think there's a problem with crabs.

Let me repeat that: Even watermen in Virginia think there's a problem with crabs.

The term "hardhead" refers to two things in the Chesapeake -- the Atlantic croaker, a fish of the family Sciaenidae that emits a croaking noise, and Virginia watermen. Those guys have for years resisted anyone, especially biologists from Maryland, who dared suggest they significantly restrict harvest for the sake of conserving a fishery.

But now they're getting the message that Maryland watermen have been slowly coming to accept: We've exploited the blue crab. It's time to lay off for a while. Even a moratorium on harvesting shouldn't be out of the question.

Do I exaggerate?

I just go by what the scientists have been telling us for a while now. They have a pretty good track record of figuring these things out.

"Perilously close to collapse" is how the Chesapeake Bay Foundation characterized the blue crab population four years ago, when it called for a year-round deep-water sanctuary -- a no-catch zone -- from the Bay Bridge to Cape Henry.

A survey by Maryland's Department of Natural Resources in the winter of 1998 found the number of young crabs below average.

Last spring, a report from the Chesapeake Bay Program concluded that the bay's crab population was "fully exploited."

Last summer, Maryland recorded its worst crab harvest on record -- and that's with 26 million pounds taken to the dock.

In Virginia, crabbers took a paltry 35 million pounds out of the bay and then, as usual, went after crabs over the winter, dredging the mud in the mouth of the bay where the critters hibernate. The winter harvest in Virginia was "disappointing," we're told.

So even in Virginia they're concerned.

Remarkably, watermen down there asked the commonwealth to stop issuing new crabbing licenses, and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission obliged with a one-year moratorium.

That's good news (especially if you already have a crabbing license). It shows some growth in thinking. For years the mentality has been: These things go in cycles, the crabs will come back, bureaucrats and biologists ought to stop micromanaging and leave the watermen alone.

But let's face it: Aggressive harvests, year after year, combined with other factors -- loss of vital bay grasses in the great crab nursery of Tangier Sound, resurgence of the crab-crunching rockfish -- lead to a dwindling crab population.

So the consistently bad news -- just recently, a reported 30 percent loss in bay grasses in Tangier -- is enough to convince me to pull out of the crab market. I don't eat them. My boycott started in August and, except for a minor slip to sample crab soup at Peerce's Plantation, it's held. I haven't put a chicken neck on a line for a couple of summers.

Of course, it's not like the situation is dire. You can get crabs. When the Chesapeake harvest doesn't meet demand, wholesalers get crabs from North Carolina and the Gulf states. If you have friends visiting Baltimore and their hearts are set on eating steamed crabs, and you're willing to pay the high market price -- $25 a dozen steamed, I heard the other day -- you can get your fill.

But unless you ask, you don't know if you're getting a Chesapeake crab or an import.

Personally, I don't want the imports. Our restaurants and seafood markets shouldn't have to rely on them. I want the blue crab to come back in big numbers in a thriving Chesapeake, our home waters, and at $12 a dozen.

That's why I'm taking a break from crab houses for the rest of the year.

Am I saving the bay?

I figure it this way: I've eaten my fill of Maryland crabs over the past 22 years, I can lay off for one. It might help. Maybe others will think about it.

This is a way of saying to the people who make these decisions: If you want to cut back dramatically on the crab harvest in Maryland, it's OK. Forget the politics. Shorten the season, retire some commercial licenses. Do it, if you think it'll make a difference.

If the short-term result is fewer crabs to market, fine. We'll get by. If we want Chesapeake crabs in big supply and at reasonable prices for years to come, then we should support efforts to temporarily but significantly restrict the harvest. For consumers, that means resting our mallets for a while.

Nutria, anyone? Tastes just like chicken.

Pub Date: 06/07/99

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