Crab factory

A Sun special report: Part one

With the bay in decline, Asian fisheries rise -- catching, picking, packaging Maryland's signature food

April 30, 2006|By Gady A. Epstein and Stephanie Desmon | Sun Reporters

DONSAK, THAILAND — By 9 a.m. the crab boats have already been coming and going from the pier for close to five hours, with migrant Burmese workers laboring to unload, sort, weigh and steam crabs that are destined for dinner plates on the other side of the world.

Presiding over this assembly line are Nantanee and Somsak Choeyklin, who remember when this crustacean that made them rich was only junk and they were poor. The blue swimming crab, known in Thailand as "horse crab," mottled and bluish-green, was little more than subsistence food when their parents were fishermen.

"When I was young, horse crab was worthless," Nantanee Choeyklin says. "We'd trade the horse crab for coconuts or some other fruit."

"Sometimes," her husband says, "we'd get it and just throw it back."

But this sea creature turned out to be strikingly similar to a classic American delicacy, Maryland's blue crab. The bad fortunes of the slowly disappearing Chesapeake Bay variety - its population in decline for more than 20 years, now holding steady near historic lows - created an opening for this previously unappreciated species 9,000 miles away.

A Maryland crab institution, the Phillips restaurants family, found that opening, discovering treasure where others had not. Led by Steve Phillips, Phillips Foods has in the past 15 years turned a foreign blue crab into a nearly $300 million-a-year industry, just as the industry back home was struggling. In the same stroke, Phillips Foods upended the equation of supply and demand in small fishing villages across the region, crowning an unloved crab as king.

Ask the Choeyklins what they think of "horse crab" now, and Somsak Choeyklin raises up his arms - his left wrist adorned by a diamond-encrusted gold Rolex that matches his wife's; his right wrist encircled by a solid-gold chain inscribed with a Superman-style S - and he declares triumphantly, "The horse crab is god!"

Sitting comfortably in plastic chairs on the pier, the air calm but strong with the odor of crab, they are at the center of a changed world. Nantanee Choeyklin is now mayor of Donsak, she and Somsak are wealthy, and what was once a small-time operation has become one of the town's largest employers, buying and selling crab that ends up in the United States.

The machinery of globalization has done its work, remaking Maryland's signature food into an industrialized product, processed and branded as carefully as a Nike basketball shoe. Crabmeat has become outsourced and commoditized, transformed from a Chesapeake Bay specialty into a manufactured good.

A new breed of crab industrialists - ambitious, opportunistic and well-capitalized - has fueled and profited from this boom. These new entrepreneurs have left behind an old breed of crabbers and pickers, the men and women of the Chesapeake Bay, who can't compete.

The influx of this crabmeat has made it possible to find Maryland's famous dish - the crab cake - in dive bars and white-tablecloth restaurants from Maine to New Mexico, except now the Chesapeake region's specialty is made mostly from Asian crab.

As in the past, with goods such as T-shirts and toys, few consumers seem to notice or care that their food is no longer from the United States. "Maryland crab" is simply rebranded "Maryland-style crab," and casual diners might be hard-pressed to notice a difference in taste.

The upside is this: The American consumer has wider access to a cheaper product. It's possible because an overseas army of fishermen, dockworkers and crab pickers labors long hours at low wages, some of them happily so, but some of them not. Before crabmeat lands on an American dinner plate, dozens of workers have handled it, from pulling it out of the sea in its shell to putting it on a shelf in its can.

In Donsak, migrant workers indenture themselves to a life of long hours, little sleep and even less leisure for, perhaps, just enough money to make life better back home - the seafood industry's version of factory towns. Local factory bosses such as the Choeyklins, and the U.S. companies they serve, reap the substantial profits to be made from mass production at low cost.

But as the people of the Chesapeake Bay learned, the boom can last only as long as the natural resource does. Before it becomes processed into an Asian factory product, Portunus pelagicus is a living thing, part of a delicate ecosystem that is increasingly vulnerable to the voracious appetites of globalization.

In the past decade, competition for crab has greatly increased as other companies have followed Phillips into Thailand's fishing villages. Amid rising prices and a declining harvest, Phillips all but pulled out of Thailand last year, looking to cheaper markets such as China and Vietnam to find the Asian blue crab it needs. The machine of globalization rolls on in its ceaseless search for more abundant, cheaper labor and resources.

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