Two million pounds of crab product from China traveled up the Chesapeake Bay into the port of Baltimore during the first 10 months of 2014. Another million pounds came from Indonesia. In total, more than 4 million pounds of crab from all over the world moved into the port, according to an analysis of import records compiled by Zepol, a Minneapolis-based company that specializes in trade data.
Translated into actual crabs, the imports would amount to 32 million creatures. That's about a tenth of the bay's entire blue crab population.
Some federal legislators and Maryland business leaders have raised concerns about the influx of imported seafood — an issue highlighted in a recent Baltimore Sun investigation. They worry that it could be repackaged and sold illegally as more expensive Maryland crabmeat.
Jack Brooks, president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, wrote to a presidential fisheries task force last summer that "unscrupulous" companies are doing just that. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, raised similar concerns in a letter to the Obama administration.
One Maryland crab importer agreed to talk about the issue and give a tour of its facilities. MeTompkin Bay Oyster Co., a Crisfield-based seafood processor, sells both domestic and foreign crabmeat. Co-CEO Casey Todd said the company would not try to pass imported crabmeat off as Maryland crab — it already has plenty of takers for the foreign product.
Todd said he'd heard rumors of the substitution in other states, but doesn't know of anyone doing it.
"Why risk it?" he asked, since the foreign product is so easily sold and tastes so different. However, he noted that a distributor might be tempted if it had a customer demanding a lot of Maryland crabmeat but lacked supply due to the bay's low crab population earlier this season.
In any case, Todd said, imports help fill demand from U.S. consumers. MeTompkin began importing crab from Indonesia a little over a decade ago to diversify its risk, he said as he walked around the company's processing facility on the banks of the bay.
His family began catching and selling seafood from local waters back in the 1800s. When they bought into MeTompkin after World War II, its prime product was Chesapeake Bay oysters. When the bay's oyster stock declined, MeTompkin expanded its crab business. Then crabs started declining. Todd said the company started importing crab from overseas to fill domestic voids and compete against bigger companies.
"Our crab tastes better," he said, "But to hang on, you offer [customers] a different product."