Maryland Crabs

In Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob Squarepants, the Krusty Krab restaurant is always overflowing with customers who all dine to drool over the famous Krabby Patty burgers. Despite their name, Krabby Patties are not actually made with crab; but if the television show’s restaurant did use real crab, and Bikini Bottom was a town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, they probably wouldn’t be getting a lot of business this summer.

A week ago in Cambridge, Maryland, my family and I were disappointed to find less crabs than we anticipated. There were no all-you-can-eat crab feasts like there used to be a decade ago, and no hard shell crabs on the menu at the local restaurant like there were last summer. At a salon in town, a local woman from Cambridge told me she wanted to buy a bushel of crabs for her family for dinner, but the market price was over $150. (One can imagine what that price would be in a restaurant — astronomical). So why the exorbitant price of crabs? Because crabs are still few and far between in the state of Maryland, and most of the Eastern seaboard for that matter.

Crab mac-n-cheese at a restaurant in Cambridge, Maryland. Even though they were on the menu, no crab bushels were available.
Crab mac-n-cheese at a restaurant in Cambridge, Maryland. Even though they were on the menu, no crab bushels were available.

In April, the 2015 Winter Blue Crab Dredge Survey results demonstrated that the total number of blue crabs living in the Chesapeake Bay, especially spawning-age females, dramatically increased in 2014. “Juvenile crabs increased 35 percent from 2014, and more than doubled from the record low in 2013,” reported the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “The 2015 juvenile abundance of 269 million crabs is just above the 26 year average of 261 million.”

The total number of crabs — including juveniles, and adult males and females — has increased from 297 million in 2014 to 411 million in 2015, the Dredge Survey found. 101 million of these crabs are spawning-age females, which is “a substantial rise from 2014 when adult females were considered depleted,” the Maryland DNR reports. Despite this improvement, the adult female crab population is still well below the numbers observed in 2010 and 2011, and far away from the target level of 215 million female crabs.

For those of you who like to enjoy a good crab cake or grew up spending your summer evenings pounding out white crab meat with your wooden mallet, there is no telling when your next crab boil will be. While Maryland and other states have worked hard at boosting their crab populations, there are some factors that no department of natural resources can control. For example, inclement weather can increase crab mortality; about 19 percent of adult crabs in the Chesapeake Bay did not survive the past winter.

A greater predator than the historically frigid winters is a neighbor of the Chesapeake crab – the Maryland Rockfish. Over the past few years, many watermen and researchers have frequently found dozens of small crabs inside the belly of a Rockfish. Even though the Rockfish, a striped bass, is the Maryland state fish, it is being given “the blame for low crab numbers.” Although there is little scientific evidence that Rockfish are causing a significant depletion of the crab population, Marylanders say there is no harm in allowing fishermen to harvest more Rockfish from the Chesapeake Bay.

Organizations like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have worked endlessly to boost the blue crab population and provide very useful infographics and fun facts about this scarce shellfish. While crabs are an important crustacean in their ecosystem, they are also important to the many fisheries, watermen, and restaurants that rely on selling them for consumption. Hopefully we will all get to don crab bibs soon.

A dock along the Choptank River in Cambridge, Maryland, which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay. Usually children catch crabs here, but there are none to catch.
A dock along the Choptank River in Cambridge, Maryland, which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay. Usually children catch crabs here, but there are none to catch.

© Rissponsible Living, 2015

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