SHELL SHOCKED

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It looks as if Chesapeake blue crabs will be protected from their natural enemies this summer by their cost, as someone once said about lobster. But it's unclear whether that will be enough to help conserve one of this region's most valuable resources - leaving some consumers wondering whether they should be making an effort to eat less crab.

Because local cuisine is so heavily based on Chesapeake crab meat, Maryland restaurant owners and their customers would have a much tougher time with a boycott of crab than they did with swordfish a couple of years ago.

For a lot of Marylanders, summer is defined by crab feasts and crab-cake dinners. They can live with eating steamed crabs from Louisiana, and they are willing to make their crab cakes with jumbo lump meat imported from Southeast Asia. They may think the flavor of a Chesapeake Bay crab is superior, but who can really tell when it's steamed in Old Bay or gussied up with mayonnaise and Worcestershire?

The one thing Marylanders probably won't do is switch to, say, fried chicken in place of steamed crabs, no matter how expensive they get.

"I'm going to eat as much as I can because you never know," jokes Wayne Bridges, manager of the Crab Claw in St. Michaels, a favorite stop for tourists in the Eastern Shore town. Still, Bridges isn't convinced Maryland has a crab emergency.

"I know people say crabs are scarce, but it happens every year until the season gets going the first or second week in June," he says.

At least one local chef is willing to take a different view. "I'm all for a [boycott]," says Nancy Longo, chef-owner of Pierpoint restaurant in Fells Point. "I don't have to eat as many crabs this year if it means more next year."

It's not just here

Last year's crab harvest was the lowest since 1983, when the Maryland Department of Natural Resources started keeping detailed records. Scientists are predicting this year could be worse. Restaurants are still getting most of their hard crabs from points south (such as North Carolina, Texas and Louisiana), even though the local season started in April. But crabs from other states won't solve the problem. The decline is national.

A couple of weeks ago, Billy Martin of Martin Seafood Co. in Jessup was talking to a commercial crabber in North Carolina. The waterman had put out 600 pots and gotten 45 bushels when he might normally expect 200 or 300.

Worse still, says Martin, "He didn't see any little crabs running out the bottom like there usually are. Not one. That's our future."

Crustacean lovers can shrug off the reports as typical gloom and doom, but they may be in for a shock when they sit down for their first feast of the season and find they're paying nearly $50 a dozen for steamed crabs.

"We could barely get crabs before the weather broke," says Donald Spence, executive chef of Bo Brooks in the Inner Harbor. He hasn't seen any jumbo and colossus crabs for a long time, while medium, large and extra-large have been going for $28, $36 and $45, respectively. Last year, Spence says, prices at roughly the same time were $26, $32 and $40.

One result is that places like Bo Brooks are putting more and more emphasis on their other seafood dishes. Just a few years ago it wouldn't have been profitable for a crab house to hire a chef like Spence, whose last job was running the kitchen at the respected Baldwin Station restaurant in Sykesville.

Fighting the decline

The reasons for the blue crab's decline are complex, involving both the destruction of its habitat and overfishing by commercial watermen and recreational crabbers. There has been some speculation that the growing rockfish population may also be contributing to the problem because rockfish see young crabs as a tasty snack.

Yet another factor, says Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is that the soft-crab industry has grown much faster than the hard-crab industry in the last 20 years. Peelers and soft crabs can be taken legally at a smaller size (3 and 3 1/2 inches, respectively, as opposed to 5 inches or larger). Scientists haven't decided exactly what effect that has on the crab population, but it surely isn't good.

A few years ago, a swordfish boycott brought the fish's endangered status to national attention. But some environmentalists are wary about using such a tactic to help restore the Chesapeake's blue-crab population. Goldsborough calls the boycott "an adversarial tool" and a last resort.

"The victims [of a boycott] are the industry," he says, "and crabbers in particular. If watermen weren't cooperating, I would consider it. But they're trying hard to figure out how to manage the problem, and they've agreed to cut back the harvest in the next couple of years."

The General Assembly this year adopted a licensing program and catch limits for recreational crabbers, and Gov. Parris N. Glendening is imposing restrictions shortening the workday for commercial crabbers and requiring that they take one day off a week. But not everyone thinks the new regulations will make any meaningful difference.

In the early '90s, Pierpoint's Longo was in New Orleans working with celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme. When she got back to Baltimore, she called a supplier in Louisiana to order some of the peewee soft shells she had eaten there. She knew she couldn't get them in Maryland because they were below the legal limit in size.

When the box of tiny soft shells arrived from Louisiana, it was labeled Crisfield, Md.

The regulations weren't enforced then, she says. Why should we think they will be enforced now?

Longo is lucky because her business doesn't depend on crabs. But Pierpoint's signature dish is a smoked crab cake, and Longo feels strongly it ought to be made with crab from the United States, if not Maryland.

She has a collection of old restaurant menus, one of which says: crab cake, 5 cents; peanut butter and jelly sandwich, 10 cents.

"Crab meat was considered as common as cat food," she said to a customer who was amazed at the prices.

The smoked crab-cake dinner on Pierpoint's menu, two crab cakes made with three-quarters of a pound of crab meat, costs $27.

Crabs beyond Maryland

These days the crab meat in a restaurant or at a seafood market is as likely to be from the Philippines or South America as it is from the Chesapeake Bay. Or it could be pasteurized crab meat from Maryland, with a refrigerator shelf life of up to a year.

Until Phillips, the granddaddy of seafood restaurant groups in Maryland, opened its Harborplace location in 1980, crab was a seasonal product. Then two more locations followed that were also open year-round (in Washington and Norfolk, Va.).

"We had trouble getting the crab meat we needed locally," says Honey Konicoff, vice president of marketing, "so we decided to look globally."

Phillips pioneered the practice of bringing in crab meat from Southeast Asia, from a closely related crab, Portunus pelagicus, or the blue swimmer crab, as opposed to the Chesapeake's blue crab, Callinectes sapidus. It's very high quality, Goldsborough says, with large white lumps and a minimum of shell.

In an informal blind taste test comparing the two, 25 of 26 people at a meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Commission last May preferred the taste of the Maryland crab, saying the imported crab tasted bland. But in dishes like crab imperial and crab cakes that are seasoned and sauced, most people can't tell the difference.

"Chesapeake is a premium name," says Goldsborough. "People have an attachment to it. If you care, ask. I believe Chesapeake Bay crab ought to be worth more."

Chef Michael Rork, who owns Michael Rork's Town Dock in St. Michaels and is also in charge of the kitchen at Baltimore's Polo Grill, believes that Maryland has the best crab meat available. His shore restaurant doesn't serve steamed crabs, so he doesn't have to worry about the dwindling supply.

He's using less crab in his seafood dishes these days because he refuses to serve imported or pasteurized crab meat. He took crab imperial off his menu, and his crab-cake platter now has only one 5-ounce crab cake for $14.95. He hopes customers will supplement it with an appetizer or soup, although, of course, he'll serve them two crab cakes if they ask him to.

"Chefs have to become very active in the saving-the-bay-type thing," he says.

Alternatives

Goldsborough believes it's only because the Chesapeake blue crab is so biologically resilient that it's around at all. It's possible, he says, that cutting back the harvest and starting to restore the bay's underwater grass beds (where young crabs hang out) will result in a more abundant population in the next couple of years. But he admits that's an optimistic scenario.

Research is under way to develop a crab aquaculture, but farm-raised blue crabs aren't likely to be available anytime soon - although the Center of Marine Biotechnology in the Inner Harbor is working on it. (Phillips has donated $300,000 to the research.) There are problems with spawning crabs in captivity, not the least of which is their feistiness. They will eat each other if they're crowded together, but juvenile crabs could be hatched and released into the bay.

People should also consider alternatives to the Chesapeake blue crab at least for a time, suggests Nancy Longo. She buys crab fat (also known as mustard) for around $5 a tub at the seafood market and adds it to crab soup and other dishes to give them more of the authentic Chesapeake Bay flavor. She also tries to come up with dishes that use other varieties of crab like snow, stone or Dungeness.

"Let's face it," she says. "Most people in Maryland will eat any kind of crab they can get their hands on."

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