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Steamy days ahead: This could be epic year for backyard crab feasts | COMMENTARY

It's been a rough first month of the crab season but the long-term outlook is actually surprisingly good. Steamed crabs, like these from Woody’s Crab House in North East, could be in abundance later this year as supplies increase but the seafood industry's ability to process crab meat can't keep pace.
It's been a rough first month of the crab season but the long-term outlook is actually surprisingly good. Steamed crabs, like these from Woody’s Crab House in North East, could be in abundance later this year as supplies increase but the seafood industry's ability to process crab meat can't keep pace.

By all accounts, Maryland’s 2020 crab season, officially launched on April 1, has been miserable for all involved in that industry. The wet, chilly spring has reduced harvests, as the crustaceans are less apt to move around in cold water. Processing plants are struggling with labor shortages as many failed to receive a sufficient number of H-2B visas that allow them to import temporary foreign labor to pick crabs. And the coronavirus pandemic has hit demand, shuttering restaurants and causing many customers to be a little cautious with their money. Even if processing plants do find workers, they are going to have to live with stricter standards (including keeping workers further apart) that slow production, much as their poultry counterparts are doing.

While we take no pleasure in the circumstances facing crab processors shortchanged by a Trump administration that seems to regard foreign-born labor as its own variety of epidemic, we can’t help but observe two factors that might cause the average Baltimorean to salivate. They are supply and demand. With processors hampered and uncertainty about restaurant demand even when (or if) they reopen in the weeks ahead, there is going to be a glut of crabs soon enough. Not now, of course. But eventually, as post-Memorial Day warmer weather arrives.

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Why? Because bi-state surveys of Chesapeake Bay blue crab populations have documented an upswing in abundance with last year’s surveys estimating the total population at 594 million including juvenile crabs, roughly doubling numbers from the year before. This trend is likely to continue, experts say, because of mild winters and because Maryland and Virginia have been cautious about overfishing. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources set catch restrictions based, in part, on survey results. Nor does it hurt that the economic slowdown from the pandemic has been helpful to the environment. Crabs appreciate clean water just like other, less tasty, creatures.

A good year for crabcakes or crab imperial? Maybe not. Crabmeat prices are likely to be high because of those processing issues but also because consumers are less apt to pay $20 or more a pound for crab meat if they are worried about their financial future. But live crabs and steamed crabs? That’s a different story. Restaurant takeout with steamed crabs and maybe some newspaper (hint, hint) to protect the table from shells could soon become the signature comfort food for Marylanders tired of stay-at-home restrictions. For the adventurous, steaming live crabs at home could prove an even more affordable treat.

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Don’t expect the bargains to show up at your local market or takeout joint this month. It will likely be weeks before crabs are abundant in Maryland. Nor should the federal government’s failure to provide sufficient H-2B visas be perceived as sound public policy. There will be adverse economic consequences for those waterfront communities, many of them on the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland, where the processing plants are located. Voters in those areas may want to rethink the wisdom of President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant stance that might once have attracted their support.

But here’s a consolation: Buying live or steamed crabs this summer supports watermen and the seafood industry, and will not compromise blue crab stocks. Indeed, finding value in this Chesapeake byproduct is one of the things that helps fuel cleanup efforts. As the T-shirt observes, “Maryland is for crabs." That’s not just about what local residents like to eat, it nicely captures our pride in being home to the nation’s largest estuary, the “immense protein factory” that H.L. Mencken described so many years ago. A slightly more affordable dozen steamers on the back deck along a pitcher of local craft brew sounds like just what the doctor ordered for getting through this miserable year.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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