Good Breeding

Hatchery's success stories could one day restock the old bay, if the blue crab's nasty behavior -- like the whole cannibalism thing -- is a shell that can be cracked.

April 09, 2002|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF


An article in the Today section yesterday said the organization in charge of the work at a crab biology project at the Inner Harbor has an affiliation with the University of Maryland. It should have been identified as a project at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute.

Introducing the cultivated crustacean: well-bred, well-nourished, well-mannered; tender to its mate, a gentleman among its fellows. Reared in the most exquisite soup. Housed in high-rise apartments. No longer a dingy blue-brackish-green, but truly blue. And not just blue but something more - purely, thrillingly, absolutely cerulean.

What's this? A blue crab without crabbiness? A blue-blooded blue Jimmy, a pampered blue Sook? A conundrum? A mutant? A freak of nature?

No, the misunderstood creature - "synonymous with a nasty or complaining disposition," as blue crab chronicler William Warner wrote in Beautiful Swimmers - finally has found respect in the tranquil tanks of people who want it to thrive.

Maryland's beloved but threatened blue crab now has a cozy home among a clan of scientists determined to coax out its mysteries and, in time, bring out its best for the benefit of science and seafood. Over the winter, while most of the region's human population celebrated the seasonal activity of Maryland Terrapins and Baltimore Ravens, the first blue crabs ever hatched and mated in captivity drew cheers from a team of biologists at the University of Maryland's Center of Marine Biotechnology in downtown Baltimore.

"We were elated," said John Trant, an endocrinologist.

"Elated? Absolutely - that's a good word for it," said John Stubblefield, crab lab manager and senior researcher.

"It was unbelievable," said Yonathan Zohar, the center's director. Late last month, Zohar announced initial results of their hatchery research at an international conference of marine biologists gathered to discuss replenishing marine fisheries around the world: a 48 percent survival rate for crab larvae; an ability to produce adult crabs in eight months, probably less than half the time it takes for crabs to mature in the wild; the ability to mate crabs born in captivity.

His good news marked the first notable achievement for a fledgling project whose purpose is to advance the overlooked science of blue crab biology and, simultaneously, explore the potential for restoring faltered blue crab populations in the Chesapeake Bay.

Under lush conditions, the laboratory's waters now teem with thousands of snapping young crabs. While Zohar downplays the blue crabs' success among professional colleagues as strictly "preliminary," his excitement around the crab tanks is less restrained.

"Everyone tells you you can't do it," he said recently, standing over an enormous blue tank literally swarming with lively juveniles. "People tried to discourage us - you know, `You'll never be able to do this. Don't touch it. It's nothing like the Japanese crab.' And so on. `Just don't even try.' We heard a lot of that. So here were are, and it was really successful!"

While a nearby female they have named Princess lies curled beneath the sand, waiting with three others to develop the first sponge of eggs ever produced from the mating of captive-born blue crabs, Zohar's biologists are on to the next step, zeroing in to correct one of the animal's nastiest and most self-destructive behaviors - cannibalism.

Cultivating this querulous creature, they have discovered, is a demanding task, an entirely new practice that might be described as the art of coddling crabs.

The crab lab is a whirring, gurgling, fishy-smelling place. Crowded with large blue and black tubs that look like above-ground swimming pools, swirling tanks of freshly made algae and bent pipes and blinking monitors, the lab simulates something like an artificial estuary that is clean, warm (65 degrees to 70 degrees Fahrenheit) and properly salinated to support a baby boom of blue crabs. Locked in the basement of the Columbus Center, off Piers 5 and 6 in the Inner Harbor, the lab is like a luxury spa for beautiful swimmers.

"We keep these animals at different light and temperature cycles, so it's spring in December rather than spring in May," explains Stubblefield, the bearded, bespectacled lab manager. "That allows us to get crab larvae outside the natural season. One advantage for us is we can be doing experiments and studying blue crabs all year. The other advantage is if you're interested in a commercial cultivation program, you'll be able to produce a crop year-round."

Giving a tour of the lab, Stubblefield admits talk of crab "crops" is a bit premature, given that even the most basic facts of crab life remain mysterious.

For example, how many egg masses do female crabs develop over a lifetime? "We know it's more than one," he says. "More than two. More than three. Beyond that nobody knows."

How does a crab born in captivity differ from one born in the wild?

"We don't know that."

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