Crab factory

May 02, 2006

Don't look for villains in the rise of Asian crabmeat and its effect on Maryland's struggling seafood industry. The compelling two-part series by Sun reporters Gady A. Epstein and Stephanie Desmon reveals a more complex story of economic globalization and exploitation. Yes, a decade and a half of relatively cheap imported crabmeat has made life difficult for Maryland crabbers and seafood packers. But it's also brought tremendous opportunities for Phillips Foods and other American firms that have responded to consumer demands.

Imported crabmeat may be judged by epicures to be inferior to that produced by the Chesapeake Bay's blue crab, but it's often less expensive, more abundant and available year-round. Those factors greatly increase its appeal on the wholesale market.

Meanwhile, the Chesapeake is far from H. L. Mencken's "vast protein factory" of nearly a century ago. Last year, the U.S. imported more than 46 million pounds of crabmeat - double the amount of five years earlier. Maryland's seafood processors produced a fraction of that last year - a total of 2.38 million pounds.

The rise of the Asian crab is just the latest change in the bay's struggling seafood economy. Long gone are the days when oysters, crabs and striped bass were all in healthy supply. The number of Maryland businesses certified to pick crabs has dwindled from 49 in 1997 to 27. But this is not just about competition from Asia. Maryland's crab harvest has been in decline for years. In the 1980s, watermen often caught about 50 million pounds of crabs annually. Since 2000, harvests have averaged closer to half that.

Pollution, the loss of habitat, and overfishing have all played a part. Asian countries are just as likely to experience these problems, too, as harvest pressure increases (there's evidence that some already have). But that may be little consolation to unemployed Eastern Shore crab-pickers.

Still, some local companies have benefited from this change. Phillips has grown from a local restaurant owner to a global food company. M&I Seafood, which sells nearly 10 million "Chesapeake Bay" crabcakes annually, makes its products in Maryland but uses Asian meat.

Consumers also benefit. They have a choice to buy lower-priced Asian crabmeat or a distinctive domestic product. In Maryland, for instance, crabmeat producers say they're focusing on quality. Now, it's up to the public to recognize the difference - and to check labels (or ask restaurant staff) to understand what they're buying. More good news: Early reports suggest blue crabs are unusually abundant for this time of year in much of the Chesapeake Bay. Maryland's "beautiful swimmers" aren't finished quite yet.

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