Beautiful swimmers

May 27, 2002

ARE MARYLAND'S crabs going the way of the lobster? Are the bay's bottom-feeders going upscale? It's starting to look like it.

Pulling the Chesapeake blue crab into a higher niche is a widening appreciation for the way they taste, well beyond the shores of the bay. Crabs in Manhattan? Unimaginable a few years ago, common today.

At the same time, the crabs are being pushed upward from below by a boom in imported crab meat from Southeast Asia. It's cheaper than anything Maryland can produce, and, liberally coated with Old Bay seasoning, doesn't offend too much in the taste department. The imports are killing off the low end of the crab business here. Indonesia last year sent the United States $94 million worth of crabmeat. Thailand wasn't far behind.

This change is taking place against the backdrop of a significantly reduced crab harvest in the Chesapeake, after the population started to fall off dramatically five years ago. Officials from the Department of Natural Resources are optimistic that the number of crabs in the bay can be coaxed back up again; they believe that the shift upward in the market can help.

But there are going to be losers.

Maryland's best crabs end up in what's called the basket trade - as in bushel baskets of whole crustaceans, just waiting to be cooked.

Lesser crabs - as well as most of those harvested after Labor Day, when people stop thinking about crab feasts - go to the crab-picking houses. These are the businesses that have been hammered by imports; their numbers have fallen from nearly 50 to 30 since 2000. The majority of them are in less-than-prosperous Dorchester County.

The problem this spring is that there are hardly any lesser crabs, and the pickers are getting into deeper trouble.

In years past, the crab-processing plants could have bought sponge crabs - females ready to lay eggs - from Virginia. Maryland has long banned their harvest, but now a new state rule forbids their import, too. The idea is that this year's Virginia sponge crabs will give birth to the Maryland adults of 2004, and eliminating part of the market for them should help reduce the catch.

Reports from Virginia suggest that the Maryland strategy might be working, although there is nothing to stop someone here from doing business with a Virginia plant that still handles sponge crabs.

The state will have to wait until next year for harder data on the success of the new ban. But it seems inevitable that more of the crab-pickers in Maryland will be driven out of business in the meantime, unable to wait for the autumn run.

Maybe that's a price that's going to have to be paid, with fewer crabs here and more coming from overseas. It's troubling, though, to think of the 880 people employed last year by Maryland processors, and to wonder how many will be out of work. How many of them will find that the newly trendy, and expensive, Chesapeake Bay crab is a luxury they can no longer afford?

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