Bay crabs disappearing in the water – and on restaurant plates
Recently, I had lunch with a chef friend of mine, one of the very best, who thinks keenly and constantly about the relationship between environmental sustainability and the way we eat. This chef has a strong commitment to sourcing foods locally —and has kept at it even as that notion has become increasingly expensive.
He had been talking to his crab supplier recently. The guy had nothing for him. In breaking the news, the supplier — a man whose family has a decades-long history in the water business — sounded like he might cry.
It has been a summer to sing the blues about our most iconic crustacean. Science tells us that the population is officially considered “depleted.” But really, if you like crabs, you don’t need a scientist to tell you the population is in trouble. The price at local restaurants is sky-high. The wait staff laments there aren’t enough. And chefs, like my friend, are reluctantly turning to crabs from Louisiana and North Carolina, where the populations are also low. Talented chefs will still prepare the crabs the way Marylanders and Virginians like them, and they will not try to claim it’s anything other than an import. But many of them, like the longtime supplier, feel like crying over what’s become of our beautiful swimmer.
I could hear sadness in the voice of Chuck Schnaittman, whose family owns Schnaittman’s Boat Rentals in Wye landing. Chuck has made every penny he’s ever earned from the Chesapeake — renting boats, buying crabmeat, selling crabmeat, teaching landlubbers how to crab, taking out fishing charters.
“Overall, yes, a very bad year, Schnaittman said. “I don’t care where you’re from. It’s been bad all over.”
When novice crabbers call about renting one of his boats, Schnaittman tells them not to bother. The regulars, sport crabbers, can catch a few in these conditions.
“But the very occasional crabbers, they don’t stand much of a chance,” he said.
This Labor Day, his landing should be packed. It’s about half the crowd he usually gets. Reluctant to pinpoint just one cause, Schnaittman, like many who work the water, think it’s a combination of bigger predators — like rockfish and skate — hanging around longer and deeper into tributaries like the Wye, known for its large and delicious crabs, and declining water quality.
Recently, Maryland officials have made a push to market the state’s blue crab. The state’s chief marketer, Steve Vilnit, wanted to reward chefs who make the effort to support local businesspeople as well as educate customers on what he believes — and I agree — to be a far superior product. If your crabcake costs $25, you’re entitled to ask why, and the answer should be because that’s darn close to the market price of the product that was caught in the waters of the Chesapeake and picked somewhere close to there. (And if you want a $16 one made with meat from Venezuela, hey, the United States is a free country, and there are plenty of places where you can get one of those.)
Those who sell mostly blue crabs are certified True Blue — customers can look for the decal on menus and in restaurant windows.
Vilnit acknowledges it’s been tough on restauranteurs. Even as he’s taken more than 400 chefs out on the water this summer to extol the virtues of serving local seafood, he’s seen how had it can be to do that. Usually, Maryland has crabs in late April. This year, there were hardly any until late June or July.
So, while Labor Day typically marks the end of the crab-feast season, this year it could be closer to the beginning. And watermen reported seeing a lot of small crabs, Vilnit said, which means next year could be much better.
“The season doesn’t end until December 16,” Vilnit said. “You could be having fresh crab meat at Thanksgiving.”
I’ll take that over turkey any day.