Memorial Day is regarded not just as a time to honor those who died in service to this country but the holiday weekend is the unofficial beginning of summer and with it, at least in Chesapeake Bay Country, the launch of blue crab season. Whether stuffed in rockfish, pan-fried as a soft-shell, broiled as a crab cake or — in its purest, most Maryland form — steamed in the shell with a good coating of peppery seasoning and picked apart on top of newspapers spread on a backyard picnic table, few native delicacies excite the local epicures (or pretty much all of us but the sadly allergic) like crabs. The good news is that the crab population has somewhat rebounded from its alarming 2022 numbers. The bad is that “somewhat” phrasing. The truth is that while the Chesapeake Bay species is more abundant than last year, there is still reason to be concerned about its future.
All of which raises a question: Is it OK to buy a pound of lump or special, or a dozen soft-shell or a bushel of jimmies? The consensus among those who have spent years studying the resources is yes, consumers can still eat them without regret. There will still be crabs wandering the Chesapeake and its tributaries. For now. The annual winter survey estimates there are at least 323 million crabs in Maryland and Virginia waters, which is a sizable 40% increase from last year when the same survey projected 227 million, a record low. But here’s the catch. In a historical context, the numbers still aren’t anything to brag about. After four straight years of low recruitment, they still may be sufficient to assure survival of the population, but for how long? Worsening climate change is fundamentally changing the ecosystem. In other words, we aren’t out of the hot water yet. (Sorry, couldn’t resist).
So what’s the average Marylander to do? Don’t boycott crabs. That only depresses prices, which in turn might increase demand while hurting watermen and seafood dealers. So we asked bay advocates, and they offered several ideas.
First, eat blue catfish. That’s right, catfish. In case you haven’t heard, they are a species that has invaded the Chesapeake Bay (beginning in Virginia) decades ago, and they dine on juvenile crabs with considerable gusto. Amateur fishermen should be angling for them, but the rest of us should ask our local seafood dealer to stock blue catfish fillet. The good news is that they are relatively inexpensive and quite tasty (although it’s best to eat smaller fry as the big catfish — those larger than 30 inches long — tend to accumulate toxins in their flesh). Some of Baltimore’s leading restaurateurs have joined this crusade, incidentally. Gertrude’s at the Baltimore Museum of Art includes “Smoked Blue Catfish Catties” with three-mustard sauce among its entrees.
Next, advocate for crab conservation. Next month, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources will have to set its blue crab catch restrictions. The DNR ought to maintain a 15-bushel daily limit on male crabs this summer. It’s the most prudent way to go. Marylanders can lobby Gov. Wes Moore and DNR Secretary Joshua Kurtz (email@example.com) for that restriction. Virginia may set limits, too, but male crabs are much more commonly caught in Maryland waters. Preserving the supply of female crabs is insufficient if they don’t have spawning partners.
And finally, but perhaps most importantly, it’s vital for all of us to do what we can about improving water quality. Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay — and preserving vital crab habitat like underwater grasses where juveniles can hide from predators like those catfish — relies on average folks doing small things like planting more trees, reducing their use of chemical fertilizers, upgrading stormwater drainage systems, and on. The Chesapeake Bay Program keeps a handy list of suggestions on its website running the gamut from picking trash from your local stream to riding a bike to work.
None of these measures requires you to eat crabs, of course. Certain animal rights groups are aghast at the thought of a steamed crab, with or without a mallet and paring knife. But it’s also fair to recognize that eight-legged Callinectes sapidus or “beautiful swimmer” might be the most effective, and delicious, outreach tool we have for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts. We just have to do a better job of looking out for their future.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.