A Future For Maryland Blue Crab Farming

As the amount of cropland in Maryland has shrunk due to an explosion of development and the number of chickens raised has grown to 570 million, chicken manure has become a major environmental hazard threatening the entire region and its watershed. It’s hard to believe that there is no legislation in Maryland to prevent these mountainous piles of chicken excrement from washing directly into the bay. As a result, this manure continues to find its way into the Chesapeake where it further degrades the local water quality and worsens the plight of the fishermen who ply its waters (fig. 72). Maryland therefore faces a unique conundrum. By allowing the chicken farmers (and suburban real estate developers) to pollute without restriction, the state tacitly allows the livelihood of the watermen to deteriorate. The poultry industry in Maryland is the state’s most lucrative form of agriculture contributing more than $700 million anually to the Maryland economy and is also one of its largest employers, so it’s very difficult to muster the political power necessary to curb the growing amount of pollution the industry introduces into the Bay each year.

Figure 72 – Polluted Waterways in Maryland. Courtesy of the New York Times.
The nation’s growing demand for cheap chicken is outstripping Maryland’s ability to produce it while maintaining an environmental equilibrium. State officials have only just begun to realize that there are consequences to producing skinless, boneless chicken breast in such quantities that it sells from the farm and into the market at just over $2 per pound. There is virtually no other animal protein source with so little fat that can retail so cheap. As the EPA works to implement President Obama’s Executive Order on Chesapeake Bay Protection and Restoration, there will invariably be restrictions on chicken farming and pollution, especially because reducing pollution from agriculture is also about a tenth as costly as it is to achieve the same reductions from urban development. It is therefore the perfect time to envision new and sustainable farm initiatives that can begin to fill the gap in agricultural production that restrictions on chicken farming will invariably create. Given that crabs are an exceptionally resilient and hardy species, the costs associated with their farming should be relatively low compared to the market cost of a mature individual. A good comparison is that of the crab to the chicken. While the crab requires more space for growth and defense, he requires none of the antibiotics that the chicken requires. What is more, since crabmeat goes for some $13.50 per pound, it could potentially rival the cost benefits of chicken farming (fig. 73).

Figure 73 – Anticipated return on one crab versus anticipated return on one chicken. Author.
It is almost poetic to think that crab farming could go on to replace the industry which has in part brought the crab to near extinction. It is also somewhat ironic to think that by eating crab raised on fenced land we could be saving him in open waters. And while crabmeat retails at a price far greater than chicken, it is reasonable to believe that we could make it a state objective to cut our chicken production in favor of a more expensive yet environmentally friendly foodstuff. Officials in Dorchester, Wicomico, Somerset, and Worcester Counties have voiced their interest in assisting and incentivize organic farming operations of this type within their counties. In summary, crab farming represents a win-win situation for Maryland and even for the nation at large. By curbing farm industries that pollute the Bay and replacing them with organic farm operations like blue crab farms, we can remediate the water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, save the Chesapeake Bay blue crab from extinction, contribute real economic value to the state economy, and maybe even save the dying tradition of the Maryland waterman (fig. 74).

Figure 74– Future of the Bay. Online Illustration.
[77] Urbina, Ian. “In Maryland, Focus on Poultry Industry Pollution,” New York Times, 11.28.2008.
[78] Urbina, Ian. “In Maryland, Focus on Poultry Industry Pollution,” New York Times, 11.28.2008.
[79] http://www.epa.gov/reg3wapd/tmdl/ChesapeakeBay/pr110409.pdf