Md. cracks down on illegal crab packers Women's cottage industry threatened


SMITH ISLAND -- It is hours before sunrise when Mrs. Z. slip out of her house and walks to a shed in her back yard where, seated before a mountain of crabs, she begins cracking claws. And breaking laws.

She's not alone. Dozens of other women on this marshy Chesapeake Bay island of three villages and 425 residents are doing the same thing in their own sheds or kitchens -- trying to earn a living picking crabs and breaking the law at the same time.

The women pack the meat into one-pound containers, stuff the tubs into boxes, throw some ice on top and ship the meat by boat to customers waiting on the mainland.

At the going rate of $7 a pound, some of the women can earn a week. The customers are happy because the meat is a bargain -- as much as half the price they'd pay at a retail seafood store -- and there's almost never even the tiniest shard of shell to be found in the sweet delicacy.

But the women who prepare the meat are violating Maryland health laws that require crabs to be picked, packaged and shipped according to strict guidelines. Neither Mrs. Z's shed nor the kitchens where her friends pick their crabs is inspected and licensed for processing seafood, a situation that was mostly ignored by state health officials until recently.

The women don't have the stainless steel tables, the washable walls, the bright lighting and the expensive steamers needed to meet state regulations. But they keep on picking because there's really no other way for women on Smith Island to earn a living.

"All the women do it because they need the money," said Mrs. Z., who asked that her name not be published.

"It's terrible work. You stink all day. You got to understand, come October [when the crab season ends], we don't make a penny."

Most of the pickers are married to island watermen, who turn what crabs are not sold to mainland packing houses over to their wives during the three-month crabbing season. By catching, cooking and picking their own crabs, the couples can realize bigger profits.

Although the illicit cottage industry has been a seasonal mainstay of Smith Island life for decades, state health officials this summer began cracking down with a force that has both angered and frightened the islanders.

Commercial seafood packers in Crisfield and elsewhere on the mainland complained to health officials that sales of the illegal meat were undercutting their business. They said the pickers' network of customers had expanded to include illegal sales to restaurants in Ocean City and on the western shore.

"It's escalated," said the owner of a licensed packinghouse on the mainland. "It's big time. No one cared when they picked 10 pounds a week. Now it's in the hundreds."

There were also reports that several people who attended a church camp meeting on Smith Island this summer ate a locally prepared crab dish and came down with food poisoning.

Health officials later confirmed there was an outbreak of salmonella enteritidis but concluded the illness was caused by tainted eggs used in the recipe.

Nevertheless, concern about island crab meat grew.

On Aug. 13 and then again on Sept. 3, health inspectors waited on the dock in Crisfield until the morning ferry from Smith Island arrived. As passengers disembarked, several clutching packages and coolers were singled out. The agents demanded to know the contents of the containers and, according to witnesses, opened some parcels without the owners' permission.

Although no arrests were made, more than 350 pounds of alleged illegal crab meat remains confiscated.

The message sent by the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in Baltimore was heard loud and clear on Smith Island: get legit or get shut down.

"We see this as a beginning step," said Jeanette B. Lyon, acting chief of the health department's Division of Food Control and the official who authorized seizure. "We don't want to put them out of business. We want them to follow regulations and see that they get licensed. If they don't, we'll go after them."

After several Smith Island pickers approached state Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Wicomico, for help recently, the Lower Eastern Shore representative met with Ms. Lyon to find ways to help the women conform with state regulations.

"These ladies came to me, and I was deeply moved by their frustrations," said Mr. Stoltzfus. "Economically, they're struggling. The oysters are gone. The island exists on crabs. They have to make their money during a short span of the season."

Mr. Stoltzfus said he will encourage the women to furnish their picking stations with proper equipment, including the boiler and retort cooking system essential to bringing the internal temperature of a crab to about 240 degrees to ensure that all bacteria is killed.

But the thousands of dollars it would take to outfit individual homes with proper equipment is beyond the means of most islanders. A pressurized steamer for a commercial kitchen, for example, could cost as much as $10,000. State licenses to buy and sell crabs cost a total of $320.

Mr. Stoltzfus said the islanders could consider building a cooperative picking house, which would enable them to receive a state license to process the crab meat and sell it on the legal market.

He said he will see whether low-interest state loans can be offered to assist the islanders.

Yet the state-supported co-op idea has its complications. Because only two of the island's three towns are linked by a road, two separate co-ops would have to be built to accommodate the pickers.

And mainland seafood processors said they would oppose any state effort to help the islanders financially.

"I'll be the first to raise hell if they offer them money," said one Crisfield packer. "Why should they get help out there when I didn't get any here?"

Mrs. Z. said she and some of the other pickers are willing to abide by state laws, but they are not sure it will be financially possible. Meanwhile, she said she and the others plan to sit down each day and pick crab meat. "People are still picking," she said. "It comes down to one thing -- they'll have bills this winter and they've got to do it."

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