Invasion of the Asian crabs

Imports: Business ingenuity pits principle of free trade against Maryland traditions.

July 03, 1999

BAN them -- or eat them?

A recent investigation by Sun reporter Michael Dresser detailed what many folks had noticed: Asian swimming blue crabs displacing Atlantic blue crabs in restaurants and supermarkets.

The crab cake you eat tonight may have been swimming in the Visayan Sea (in the Philippines) not long ago.

Imports from Asia are cutting into the Chesapeake crab market and threatening the livelihood of some 3,200 watermen as well as pickers and picking houses. A state that regulates oystering to preserve an obsolete but picturesque technology recoils from advocating federal trade barriers to protect the same watermen.

Phillips Food Inc., which began as a crab picking house on Hoopers Island in the bay 85 years ago and became a restaurant in the 1950s and a chain in the 1980s, is now an Asian crab empire with plants in three countries and a nationally marketed brand of imported crab meat.

What began as a hunt for supply to meet demand produced a price-cutting rival to the regional industry from which the company sprang. It is not the same crab. Experts say the Asian species is not as good, though many consumers can't tell the difference. Other imports, from South America, are the same Atlantic blue crab that swims in the bay.

The old methods are costly. Maryland pickers, who earn in an hour what an Asian picker makes in a day, are poorly paid by U.S. labor standards. Forcing them out of that work is not an attractive option. Though thousands of jobs are in peril, hundreds are being created in Baltimore -- to make crab cakes from the imported product.

The knee-jerk response is to seek tariffs to protect a domestic industry against an import surge. But the Port of Baltimore thrives on trade and the United States generally crusades for free trade.

With or without temporary protection, this Maryland industry needs to modernize to survive. Better marketing is a must. The state has a role to play, and it is not lobbying Washington for tariffs.

California champagne is good, but no threat to the costlier stuff from Champagne. Maple syrup from Ohio has not undermined the Vermont product. And nothing from Asia will replace the beautiful swimmers of the Chesapeake, as long as they flourish here.

Pub Date: 7/03/99

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