An industry in its death throes

DECADE IN REVIEW

December 27, 2009

For hundreds of years, the oysters and crabs at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay sustained countless Eastern Shore livelihoods and became a state symbol. Out-of-towners who thought about Maryland thought about savory crab cakes, steamed bushels and the peppery bite of Old Bay.

As certain as the tide, money would come in for fishing, for picking, for seafood processors and restaurants - enough to build homes and raise families. But that way of life increasingly seemed all but over as oyster and blue crab populations dropped lower and lower, hitting crisis levels.

Regulators tried to encourage species comebacks with tight harvesting restrictions. Still, crab counts plummeted. Pollution and drought made a dire situation worse.

Destination crab houses began serving crabs caught in more prolific waters on the other side of the planet. The Eastern Shore, meanwhile, began looking for a future in tourism, retirees - and marketing of the sugary, multilayered Smith Island cake.

The crab might still be Maryland's iconic image, but it's a bit of false advertising.

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