Chesapeake crab resource on rebound
For Chef Chad Wells, Chesapeake Bay’s rebounding blue crab population means he’ll serve Maryland crab cakes this month at Alewife, his Baltimore gastro-pub dedicated to craft beer and food that is sustainable, local and seasonal.
In the last decade, the local blue crab supply has been limited. But this year, with Maryland’s harvest back up to historic levels of 60 million pounds, there are enough blue crabs for processors to pasteurize and offer year-round at competitive pricing. Maryland’s blue crab fishery is also in the pre-assessment stage of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification.
“They’re doing a lot of good things to protect the fisheries,” says Wells. “It’s the responsibility of chefs to showcase that.”
Still, given that regional demand for crab outstrips the local supply, odds are that the crab in most crab cakes served on Maryland’s Eastern Shore did not come from the Chesapeake, despite the iconic fishery’s illustrious history. In his 1976, Pulitzer Prize-winning classic “Beautiful Swimmers,” William W. Warner writes: “No body of water in the world has been more intensely fished for crabs than the Chesapeake, nor for a longer period, with such successful result.”
But by 1992, blue crabs were in decline. A decade ago, Virginia and Maryland’s harvests had dropped to about 20 million pounds each, sending 10 processors under. The culprits, say scientists, have been heavy fishing and water quality in the bay, which suffers from too much nitrogen and phosphorous draining from its 64,000-square-mile watershed. The nutrient overload spurs algal blooms that rob the water column and fish of oxygen when they die and decompose, creating what are known as “dead zones.”
Thomas Miller, professor of fisheries science at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, credits 2008 management measures that protect female crabs in late autumn in both states and that have banned Virginia’s winter dredge fishery.
The adult female crab abundance has increased by more than 200 percent, notes Miller. “The stock has really recovered rapidly,” he says. “The Virginia harvest [about 30 million pounds] hasn’t fully recovered, but there are signs that it’s beginning to pick up.”