Next time you think hot dogs for that Sunday afternoon picnic, stateand seafood industry officials would like you to think Maryland bluecrabs instead.

The world-famous Chesapeake Bay crustaceans are practically crawling out of the bay, said Bill Sieling, chief of seafood marketing at the state Department of Agriculture.

Because of the abundance, consumers can buy crabs at prices aboutone-fifth to one-third less than last year's, Sieling said at a newsconference yesterday at the Maryland Waterman's Cooperative in Eastport.

Watermen say they are catching twice as many crabs compared to this time last year.

"Even though there are a number of problemsaround the bay, there's a lot of good news," said W. Pete Jensen, director of the fisheries division at the state Department of Natural Resources. "Crabs are a good example."

Harvests should total some 50 million pounds by the end of the season. The crop typically accounts for about half of all commercially harvested bay seafood, Jensen said.

West River waterman Bob Evans, who steered his 43-foot boat tothe Second Street coop yesterday after a morning of crabbing, said the cyclic crab is feeding well this year because of ideal water temperatures and wind conditions.

But a poor economy has pulled the market down, he said.

"We always get a surge of crabs in the springtime," he said. "We had the surge too early this year.

"Crabs are a luxury item," he said. "They've been hard to sell this year. Because people don't have as much money, they're not eating as many crabs."

When buying packaged crab meat, consumers will bolster the state's seafood industry and get more for their money if they buy Maryland crab meat, Sieling said.

A study released yesterday confirmed what state officials, seafood packers and watermen already believed: Maryland crab meat, which is steamed, offers better quality and value than out-of-state crab meat, which is boiled. Many Southern plants boil crab meat, but state regulations require Maryland packers to steam it.

The joint study by state and seafood industry representatives showed that while boiled crab meat might cost consumers less, steamed meat contains less water, tastes fresher and has a longer refrigerated shelf life.

Evans, who owns Bayfood in Edgewater, said he won't stock non-Maryland crab meat because of its limited shelf life.

But many Maryland seafood markets sell out-of-state meat. Last year, the Department of Natural Resources found that more than half the grocery stores surveyed around the state sold crab meat only from other states -- such as North Carolina, Virginia and Louisiana -- or from foreign countries, such as Mexico and Pakistan.

Maryland crab meat is packaged in containers that display an MD followed by a number.

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