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Chesapeake Bay Blues
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September 27, 2012
Get your table paper down and your mallets out. If you want Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs before they head south for the winter, you may soon have to pick them yourself. WYPR’s Karen Hosler filed this Old Bay-spiced report.
It’s Friday, on a late summer afternoon on the waterfront deck of Cantler’s Riverside Inn, outside Annapolis. This is the season when Marylanders can be all but assured of getting live crabs from the Chesapeake Bay—instead of winter cousins from Louisiana. The crowd is cracking, picking, and enjoying life in a way that is still intrinsic to the local heritage.
A pledge to serve Maryland seafood as much as possible is fundamental to this long-time bayside family business, says Dan Donnelly, Cantler’s general manager. Why bother?
“We are a Maryland crabhouse so we’re going to have Maryland crabmeat. We definitely want to support the watermen and the Chesapeake Bay, and the state of Maryland. We might have to pay a little bit more, but it’s worth it.”
Cantlers is unusual because picking, packing and preserving Maryland crab meat for use in a wide variety of dishes from soup to dip has become so difficult and costly hardly anybody’s doing it any more.
More than 90 percent of the crab meat sold in Maryland does not come from the Chesapeake, according to state officials. The relatively hearty local species, which is fighting off threats from pollution and overfishing, is being gravely challenged by cheap foreign imports and the scarcity of local labor.
“Everybody just assumes that when you go out and you get a crab cake at a local restaurant that it’s made from Maryland crabmeat. And the dirty little secret of the industry is most often it’s not.”
That was Steve Vilnit, director of a state fishery program aimed at convincing local restaurants and stores to serve and sell “True Blue.”
The Maryland Blue Crab appears to be nearing the end of a 120-year arc of market prominence. The state’s oldest crab picking houses were established in the late 1800’s on Hoopers Island, in Dorchester County. After their product peaked in the 1990’s, most local picking houses have quietly shut their doors.
“There are maybe half a dozen or so of these places left in the entire state.”
And yet, the demand continues to rise so says Pete Lesher, chief curator of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels.
"So for years, we’ve had to bring in crab meat from the Carolinas. Or from the Gulf coast. It’s the same crab, although the Maryland seafood marketers will tell you if it’s steamed in Maryland and picked here you get more crabmeat for your pound.”
After a lousy summer of too little rain, too hot water, and a predator crop of rockfish, Maryland’s trademark crustaceans should be at their best. These side-walking sweeties have been mating, molting and bulking up in the northern waters of the Bay, giving them the fat-fueled taste that locals swear makes the delicacy unique. Chesapeake Blue Crabs are also expected to benefit this year from a four-year ban on dredging their wintering spot in Virginia, a tactic Dan Donnelly always thought unsporting.
“I equate that with shooting a bear in hibernation. You know? The dredge just didn’t seem fair to me."
But, he says, on the other hand…
“You’re affecting another part of the business with crab picking houses, so now if they’re not dredging the crabs, obviously there’s nothing to pick.”
The picking houses have a rich social history often reflected in song.
“There’s a bright side somewhere. There’s a bright side somewhere. Don’t you worry, take my hand. There’s bright side somewhere.”
That was Nicie Jones, who has worked as a crabpicker for the J.M. Clayton Company in Cambridge for 62 years. She used to sing with a room full of other women. Now she sits in a corner of the picking room with only Charlotte, a local who says singing is not her gift. Nicie is black and Charlotte is white, but most of the room is filled with scores of Mexican women, drafted into the US for up to eight months a year to replace American workers who no longer want the jobs. They chat quietly in Spanish as a wheel barrel of crabs gets dumped on the tables in front of them.
They sit and work as quickly as they can to pluck meat from piles of crabs - sorting it by quality: Jumbo lump, backfin, claws. No machine can match their handiwork.
The money isn’t great, says Jack Brooks, president of Clayton. But they get incentive pay for quantity.
“The fast pace you see in there, the folks are giving themselves a raise by working harder and quicker.”
Local folks have resisted decades of recruitment efforts, including job fairs and prison work release programs. Theodore Anderson, who has been working at Clayton since he started cracking claws at nine--48 years ago--said he doesn’t know anybody there anymore except his bosses. And none of his five children have followed into the crab-picking trade.
“I think I’m the last of the Mohicans.”
Brooks said scarce labor made Maryland crab houses especially vulnerable in the mid-nineties when importers started bringing in a similar crab species from Southeast Asia and Venezuela, all picked cheaply and ready to serve.
“We cannot compete with the economics of those countries, just literally cannot.”
The H2B visa program that allows for temporary crab pickers from Mexico has been a huge help--but a challenge of red-tape. Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski has had to frequently intercede. One year nothing worked, and Brooks had to turn his full-boat crabbers away at the pier. He just didn’t have the pickers.
The Maryland industry is seriously at risk, says Vilnit, the director of the True Blue program.
“If we don’t have the support for these businesses, that level continues to drop. what’s going to happen is these crabbers are going to have nowhere to go with their product. And then we’re really going to see a decline in the local industry. All the local crabbers drop off and now you can’t go out and get hard crabs for a crab feast this weekend at your house.”
Now, as the folks at Clayton are picking and packing what they call the tastiest product of the year, Brooks says it’s unsettling to remember the company founded by his great grandfather is featured at the maritime museum.
“Is that a sign? Maybe we’ve overstayed but we don’t think so. We’d like to think there is a future here for another generation or two to keep it going for another 50 to 100 years.”
Just don’t wait that long for a crab feast. I’m Karen Hosler, reporting from Cambridge and Annapolis for 88.1 WYPR.
You can reach the WYPR Newsroom at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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