Introduction

The blue crab was first identified as a unique species in 1886, when M.J. Rathbun, a naturalist from Maryland, coined the name Callinectes sapidus, or “savory blue swimmer” (fig. 3)[1].


Figure 3- The mid-Atlantic blue crab—Callinectes sapidus. Image Courtesy Kennedy & Cronin.

While its evolutionary origin lies in the tropics, the blue crab has adapted to waters of varying temperatures and can be found as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as Venezuela[2]   (fig. 4). The Chesapeake Bay is near the northern limit of blue crab geographic distribution, but the unique estuarine conditions of the Bay have proved so favorable to crab development that the Bay area itself accounts for one-third of all domestic blue crab harvests each year. (fig 5)[1]

Figure 4- Native geographic distribution. Author illustration.


Figure 5 – 33% of Domestic Blue Crab Harvests. Author Illustration. Base Image NOAA Landsat.
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As such, the blue crab’s iconic significance to the Chesapeake Bay region has grown over time. Louisiana has its shrimp, New England has its oysters, Texas has its beef barbeque, and in mid-Atlantic has its crabs. “More than any other single foodstuff, the blue crab has come to define this region” (fig. 6).


Figure 6 – Foodstuffs as regional icons. Author illustration.

This is especially true for Maryland, where the blue crab is heralded as the “Maryland State Crustacean.” The crab has come to represent more than a foodstuff in our region—it represents an industry, a culture, and a way of life (fig 7).


Figure 7 – Blue crab as generator of regional character. Author illustration.

Given its abundance, history, and regional significance, one would expect that a Maryland crabcake would be chock full of Chesapeake Bay blue crab. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. When you bite into a Maryland crabcake at a historic Maryland crab restaurant this summer, the odds are that the crabmeat in your sandwich comes from the eastern shores of the Philippines, not the eastern shore of Maryland (figure 8).


Figure 8 – Eastern Shore or Far Eastern Shore? Author illustration.

Although no one single individual or company is responsible for this lamentable fact, the Phillips seafood story provides valuable insight into the changes the Maryland crabbing industry has experienced over the past century. In 1916, A. E. Phillips founded the Phillips Seafood Company and opened a crab processing facility in Hooper’s Island, Maryland. Since that time, the Phillips enterprise has grown considerably. Brice and Shirley Phillips opened the first in a series of seafood restaurants in Ocean City, Maryland in 1956. Over the course of the following four decades, the Phillips family opened restaurants in Baltimore, Washington, DC, and another two in Ocean City. In the 1980s, Steve Phillips took the reins of the company, but by the time he was ready make his mark on the family business, the Chesapeake Bay didn’t have enough blue crabs to satisfy the scope of Mr. Phillips’ ambitions. So he headed to the Philippines, where he had heard that crabbers were harvesting the blue swimmer crab, a distant cousin of the Chesapeake Bay blue crab, with a similar “flavor profile.” With the help of a chemical—sodium acid pyrophosphate, or SAPP—the Phillips Company found they were able to preserve the Philippine crabmeat for a period of 18 months, a process the Phillips Company refers to as “pasteurization”—a treatment that both whitens the crabmeat and “tempers” its natural flavor. What the Phillips Company sacrificed in taste, it has exponentially recouped in profit. Phillips is now a multinational company that is expanding its market into Europe and beyond.
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Steve Phillips is not the only one importing foreign crabmeat. Over the past 10 years, local consumption of crabmeat has been relatively steady, but there has been a huge increase in imported crabmeat. If demand has increased during the period, it has been more than met by the increase in imports, which have abetted the steady decline in the price of locally harvested blue crabmeat (fig. 9). Low-cost crabbing industries in South America have flooded the market; foreign crab can be caught, processed, preserved, shipped, distributed, and sold for considerably less than local blue crab can be caught and processed (fig. 10).


Figure 9 - Real Cost of Crabmeat Processed in Maryland (Domestic Harvest). This is the Manufacturer’s Sale Price into the Wholesale Market in $/lb, Converted to 2009 Dollars. Data courtesy of Doug Lipton, Professor, UMD Sea Grant Extension Program. Author illustration.


Figure 10 – Relative cost of crabmeat in Maryland. 2005 wholesale price. Author Illustration.
All of this doesn’t change the fact that the mid-Atlantic blue crab just seems to taste better than any other type of crab, whether from the Philippines or Venezuela. In a 2005 blind taste test featuring top area chefs, local blue crab was picked from amongst its Philippine and Venezuelan peers 100% of the time. So there is a value to that taste, even if local businessmen have been struggling to realize it.

Jack Brooks, Managing Director and Owner of JM Clayton Seafood Co., Maryland’s oldest and most esteemed crab picking and processing company, speculates that the distinct and flavorful taste of Maryland blue crab derives in part from the brackish waters of the Chesapeake Bay. He claims to be able to locate a crab within a few miles of where it was caught by its taste alone. But Brooks remains convinced that it is the cold temperature of Maryland waters that define the flavoring process: “When a Maryland blue crab burrows into the mud to hibernate for the winter, it stores up fat that will keep him warm all winter long.” According to Brooks, this fat content is responsible in large part for the unique flavor of the Chesapeake Bay Crab. Brooks points out that blue crabs from Venezuela do not have the same taste as crabs from our local waters. Brooks therefore surmises that it is the overwintering process and consequent fatty deposits that imbues the Chesapeake Bay blue crab with its unique flavor.

The jury is still out on the question of taste. Recent research conducted at the University of Maryland’s Biotech Institute shows that blue crabs can grow to full size within six months of the juvenile stage. It is believed that with adequate access to food and refuge from predators, this time could even be cut in half. This finding might serve to contradict Brooks’ line of reasoning regarding the overwintering process as source of regional flavor, particularly if crabbers are harvesting full-size crabs that have not overwintered once. If this is the case, then the mustardy taste of the Chesapeake Bay blue crab is probably due to the brackish Bay water and local estuarine food sources.

 

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[1] Kennedy & Cronin—The Blue Crab: Callinectes sapidus, page 656.
[2] http://www.serc.si.edu/labs/fish_invert_ecology/bluecrab/overview.jsp 
[3] Washington City Paper, Crab Imperialist, July 15–21, 2005, by Todd Kliman.
[4] Washington City Paper, Crab Imperialist, July 15–21, 2005, by Todd Kliman.
[5] From author’s 8.12.09 email correspondence with Doug Lipton, Associate Professor, Department of Agricultural & Resource Economics, Program Leader, University of Maryland Sea Grant Extension.
[6] Washington City Paper, Crab Imperialist, July 15–21, 2005, by Todd Kliman.
[7] Author’s interview of Jack Brooks, managing director of The JM Clayton Co, conducted July 2, 2009.
[8] Interview with Dr. Yonathan Zohar, COMB Director, and Odi Zmora, COMB Master Nutritionist, conducted 02.12.09.
[9] Doctor Yonathan Zohar, director of UMBI, quoted in The Scientist.com V 23, Issue 2, pg 27. By Megan Scudellari.