Shell Shocked

With blue crabs in short supply, prices are higher and chefs are revising menus. What's a seafood lover to do?

May 23, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

It looks as if Chesapeake blue crabs will be protected from their natural enemies this summer by their cost, as someone once said about lobster. But it's unclear whether that will be enough to help conserve one of this region's most valuable resources - leaving some consumers wondering whether they should be making an effort to eat less crab.

Because local cuisine is so heavily based on Chesapeake crab meat, Maryland restaurant owners and their customers would have a much tougher time with a boycott of crab than they did with swordfish a couple of years ago.

For a lot of Marylanders, summer is defined by crab feasts and crab-cake dinners. They can live with eating steamed crabs from Louisiana, and they are willing to make their crab cakes with jumbo lump meat imported from Southeast Asia. They may think the flavor of a Chesapeake Bay crab is superior, but who can really tell when it's steamed in Old Bay or gussied up with mayonnaise and Worcestershire?

The one thing Marylanders probably won't do is switch to, say, fried chicken in place of steamed crabs, no matter how expensive they get.

"I'm going to eat as much as I can because you never know," jokes Wayne Bridges, manager of the Crab Claw in St. Michaels, a favorite stop for tourists in the Eastern Shore town. Still, Bridges isn't convinced Maryland has a crab emergency.

"I know people say crabs are scarce, but it happens every year until the season gets going the first or second week in June," he says.

At least one local chef is willing to take a different view. "I'm all for a [boycott]," says Nancy Longo, chef-owner of Pierpoint restaurant in Fells Point. "I don't have to eat as many crabs this year if it means more next year."

It's not just here

Last year's crab harvest was the lowest since 1983, when the Maryland Department of Natural Resources started keeping detailed records. Scientists are predicting this year could be worse. Restaurants are still getting most of their hard crabs from points south (such as North Carolina, Texas and Louisiana), even though the local season started in April. But crabs from other states won't solve the problem. The decline is national.

A couple of weeks ago, Billy Martin of Martin Seafood Co. in Jessup was talking to a commercial crabber in North Carolina. The waterman had put out 600 pots and gotten 45 bushels when he might normally expect 200 or 300.

Worse still, says Martin, "He didn't see any little crabs running out the bottom like there usually are. Not one. That's our future."

Crustacean lovers can shrug off the reports as typical gloom and doom, but they may be in for a shock when they sit down for their first feast of the season and find they're paying nearly $50 a dozen for steamed crabs.

"We could barely get crabs before the weather broke," says Donald Spence, executive chef of Bo Brooks in the Inner Harbor. He hasn't seen any jumbo and colossus crabs for a long time, while medium, large and extra-large have been going for $28, $36 and $45, respectively. Last year, Spence says, prices at roughly the same time were $26, $32 and $40.

One result is that places like Bo Brooks are putting more and more emphasis on their other seafood dishes. Just a few years ago it wouldn't have been profitable for a crab house to hire a chef like Spence, whose last job was running the kitchen at the respected Baldwin Station restaurant in Sykesville.

Fighting the decline

The reasons for the blue crab's decline are complex, involving both the destruction of its habitat and overfishing by commercial watermen and recreational crabbers. There has been some speculation that the growing rockfish population may also be contributing to the problem because rockfish see young crabs as a tasty snack.

Yet another factor, says Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is that the soft-crab industry has grown much faster than the hard-crab industry in the last 20 years. Peelers and soft crabs can be taken legally at a smaller size (3 and 3 1/2 inches, respectively, as opposed to 5 inches or larger). Scientists haven't decided exactly what effect that has on the crab population, but it surely isn't good.

A few years ago, a swordfish boycott brought the fish's endangered status to national attention. But some environmentalists are wary about using such a tactic to help restore the Chesapeake's blue-crab population. Goldsborough calls the boycott "an adversarial tool" and a last resort.

"The victims [of a boycott] are the industry," he says, "and crabbers in particular. If watermen weren't cooperating, I would consider it. But they're trying hard to figure out how to manage the problem, and they've agreed to cut back the harvest in the next couple of years."

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