Regional History

Maryland’s history is indebted to and intertwined with the history of the blue crab. Some scholars believe the blue crab dates back to the Eocene or the Oligocene era, but the earliest uncontested specimens come from the Miocene horizon (figure 33).


Figure 33 - Cenozoic (Current) Era. Bottom Slider in Millions of Years. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geologic_time_scale

Blue crabs have been have been fished and caught by man since before the dawn of recorded history. The earliest reference to blue crab as a foodstuff in the Mid Atlantic occurs in Western History when Hamor (1615) narrates that the Indian Chief Powhatan served visiting Europeans crab as part of a breakfast meal. During the 1700s the blue crab was commonly eaten along the Midatlantic but not far from where it was caught. Salting and drying methods of preservation do not lend themselves well to crabmeat, and thus the blue crab was not transported out of the Midatlantic until the birth of ice-cooling. Crabmeat will stay fresh on ice for a period of only 10 days, so there are also limitations on how far afield it could be transported until recent developments in flash freezing and refrigerated trucking.

Much of the science behind crabbing technology was developed here in Maryland. Crabbing in Maryland began as a netting activity. But over time, the technology evolved from one of hand held nets and baskets and into wire mesh traps that could be left in the Bay over a period of days and nights—then subsequently emptied when the waterman returned to empty its contents (figure 34).

Figure 34- Crabbing using nets, baskets, and traps. Images courtesy of Kennedy & Cronin.

Over time, the scope and nature of the crabbing apparati evolved. Nets and baskets evolved into dikes and stream diverters (fig. 35). These inventions were ultimately not as effective as the traditional crab pots—the technology preferred by watermen up to the preset day.


Figure 35 – Crabbing in Maryland using catch-basin traps. Images courtesy of Kennedy & Cronin.
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Historically, the Maryland crabbing industry has revolved around adult males or jimmies. After a day’s work, watermen would sell their live catch to local picking/processing facilities, crab shacks, and restaurants. The industry operated in this manner for over a hundred years. But things are changing. There are not enough crabs and oysters in the Bay to provide watermen with a reasonable livelihood. And what is more, it seems that market tastes are changing also. Jack Brooks of JM Clayton suspects that the Maryland blue crab industry is transitioning from hard-shell jimmies to soft-shell crabs, or “peelers”. These suspicions are confirmed by several local experts. Not only is the soft-shell crab something of a delicacy in traditional mid-Atlantic cooking, there is a large market for soft-shell crabs in many Asian recipes. Along the Maryland coast, there are a few independent farming operations that raise soft-shell crabs in stacked PVC trays supplied with a continuous flow of moving water. These cells are monitored at regular intervals, and once the crab has evacuated its exoskeleton, the farmer will remove the crab and put it on ice, which inhibits the crabs ability to regrow its shell. The peeler will then be sent directly to market for sale. According to Ernest Williams of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, a contemporary blue crab farming operation would likely make its maintenance/operations payments on sales from hard-shells but would make its profits on sales from these peelers[29].

As mentioned previously, Dorchester County is the historic home of the crabbing industry in Maryland. As a primarily rural community of 30,000, Dorchester’s historic industries include farming, oystering, crabbing, and timbering. Of these four principal industries, only two remain viable to this day—farming and crabbing, and the crabbing industry is starting to atrophy. English colonists began to populate the area in the 1700’s, when it was discovered that Dorchester’s farmland was incredibly fertile. This was the result of vast sedimentation from centuries of streams running out into the Chesapeake Bay. Dorchester County was the site of the last remaining Indian reservation in Maryland and, based upon its particular landscape geography, boasts the greatest wildlife preserves in the region. The southwestern portion of the county is comprised of a series of islands that protect a series of low-lying wetlands, home to some of the Nation’s most notable wetlands preserves including the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
The Terraced landscape of Dorchester County prevents uphill migration of Bay waters and simultaneously ensures that the low lying southeastern portion of the county retains water four seasons a year. The County steps up to the west in a series of two-to-four-foot terraces (fig. 36). As a result, the southern portion of the county is home to some of the most fecund wetlands in America. But rising waters associated with climate change pose an imminent threat to these low lying areas, and it is believed that as much as half of Dorchester county will be lost due to climate change over the course of the next 50 years.


Figure 36 - Section Through Dorchester County (Y-Axis Exaggerated for Clarity). http://www.fws.gov/blackwater/restoration/Kopecky_blackwater_0507.pdf

As historic home to the crabbing industry in Maryland, Dorchester boasts more picking and processing facilities than any other county in Maryland. However, the drastic decline in blue crab harvests over the past ten years has put many of Maryland’s historic family-owned picking-processing facilities out of business. According to Jack Brooks of JM Clayton Co Seafood, there were more than 50 picking and processing facilities on the Eastern Shore in 1985. Today, there are approximately 15 still in operation. The collapse of the picking and processing industry in North Carolina and Georgia means that these few picking facilities represent an overwhelming majority of domestic lump and backfin crabmeat production. New York and North Carolina have viable commercial crabbing industries, but they tend to concentrate on live product. While the Mid-Atlantic market has historically been dominated by the sale of large male specimens, the New York market in particular focuses on smaller, pregnant female crabs whose eggs flavor several Asian dishes.
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[24] Kennedy & Cronin—The Blue Crab: Callinectes sapidus, page 15
[25] Kennedy & Cronin—The Blue Crab: Callinectes sapidus, page 656
[26] Kennedy & Cronin—The Blue Crab: Callinectes sapidus, page 657
[27] Author’s interview of Jack Brooks, managing director of The JM Clayton Co, conducted July 2, 2009.
[28] Ernest Williams Interview 02.12.09.
[29] Ernest Williams Interview 02.12.09.
[30] http://www.preserveamerica.gov/firstPAcommunities-dorchestercountyMD.html