Thousands of Asian workers on a new global supply line are supplanting an old Maryland-based food chain

Working the water

A Sun Special Report

Crab factory


TYLERTON -- On Smith Island, Donna Smith knows there's only one thing for women like her to do once their men have delivered their catch of Chesapeake Bay blue crabs and the crabs have been steamed and silenced for good.

They have to get to work, the tedious, monotonous work of picking crabmeat. Geography and nature have set the boundaries of what they do as surely as geography and nature have set the boundaries of the island.

Some of the women were born into this life. Others married into it, knowing that their fate for at least six months out of the year would be to separate crabs from their shells with as much speed and dexterity as they could muster, picking fast enough each day to stay ahead of the next day's catch.

"If there's a crabber in your family, chances are you pick crabs," says Smith, a picker who has lived on the island for nearly four decades and raised two sons here. "On Tylerton, there's nothing else for us to do."

The work these women do defines their lives, and yet now it can easily be done elsewhere by others. For every nimble-fingered woman picking crab with a curled knife on Smith Island, there are hundreds of women in Asia doing the same work just as fast. For every crabber on Smith Island, there are thousands from Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Myanmar and Thailand. The boundaries previously set by geography and nature have been broken down by the brute force of capital and labor.

The old Maryland-based food chain - small and, at best, static - is being supplanted by a new one, dramatically changing the story of who brings crab to Americans and of how they do it. That new supply chain starts in waters vaster and deeper than the Chesapeake Bay and ends in supermarkets and restaurants all over the United States.

How Asian crabs become a packaged American consumer product is a tale of all the humanity that constitutes a global industry, of entrepreneurs taking big chances to make big money, of people exploiting nature and each other for personal gain, of laborers so desperate to pursue better lives that they leave wives and children behind for years at a time.

They are all yoked together by their individual stakes in each 1-pound can of crab, in the nearly $300 million-a-year industry that brings the world's crabmeat to the American market. On this new production line, a band of itinerant Burmese fishermen living on a wooden boat begins a process that ends with well-dressed suburbanites sitting down to a crab cake meal in the world's richest country. The Maryland crabbers and pickers are increasingly left out.

From a place as isolated as Tylerton, the islanders say, it's difficult to battle with the corporations mass-producing what was once their homegrown specialty.

One of the restaurants on Smith Island has even sold crab cakes made from Asian crab to tourists who come for seemingly authentic Maryland fare. "It wasn't much of a secret when people saw him bring it in on the stern of his boat," says Tina Corbin, president of the Smith Island Crabmeat Cooperative.

Six afternoons a week, from May or June and often until Thanksgiving, the men tie up their boats at Tylerton's rickety dock and deliver the day's catch to the co-op's screened-in porch, where two giant metal steamers will render the crabs just the right hue of orange. The crabs will cool in a walk-in refrigerator. Only then can the picking begin.

Each basket of Maryland blue crabs will yield 6 or 7 pounds of the creamy crabmeat. And each pound of crabmeat sold by the cooperative will bring in $15. Sometimes the pickers' earnings are limited by how much crab comes in. More often, they are limited by time - there are only so many hours in the day, and the crabs that can't be picked will have to be sold in the shell, for less.

When the room is filled with the women of the island, it feels more like a coffee klatch than the serious job it is. But make no mistake. They are busy, baskets of crabs spilled out before them waiting to be attacked. The women make quick work with thumb and forefinger, popping off the back shells and, with what seems like one graceful motion, scraping out the succulent lumps of crabmeat and tossing them, along with other pieces, into small plastic tubs.

They tell stories. They sing, beautiful spirituals with the striking a cappella of a long-practiced choir. They marvel at the speed with which Robin Bradshaw can pick a pound, creating mountains of snowy crabmeat in minutes. They laugh - a lot. They sit not far from a hand-lettered sign hung above a paper-towel rack: "Some things are worth hearing over and over again."

This isn't a factory for the world. It can't be. In its first year, less than a decade ago, the co-op picked 19,000 pounds of crabmeat. In 2005, it was roughly 10,000 pounds, just one day's work in some plants overseas.

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