As Karl Blankenship reports in our November issue, it’s been a dismal year for the Bay’s most valuable commercial species — and for restaurants that are accustomed to serving blue crab meat.
The price for Maryland blue crabs increased by $10 a pound this year over last year, said Steve Vilnit, director of fisheries marketing for the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
Vilnit started the Maryland True Blue program in 2012 to recognize and certify Maryland and D.C.-area restaurants that source the pricier local offering. As the number of blue crabs available this year took a dive, Vilnit said the program focused on educating the public about blue crabs — and why they are costing more — instead of trying to get new restaurants to participate. The program has almost 170 participating restaurants.
“We wanted to make sure that those who were buying Maryland crab had the customer support to handle these higher prices,” Vilnit said. “Next year, if we have a good crab year, we can add more restaurants.”
MJ Gimbar, chief fishmonger for the Black Restaurant Group in Washington, D.C., said it was a “dreadful” season for Chesapeake Bay crabmeat this year, but he was still able to source some from Maryland and Virginia for the five restaurants and the fish market he supplies.
Vilnit said the majority of restaurants enrolled in the True Blue program are already high-end and can take on — or pass on — a higher-priced crabmeat. Those that couldn’t largely chose to take crabmeat off the menu or reduce the number of places it appeared for the time being, rather than using a different type of crab, Vilnit said, (though some did opt instead for Virginia crabs when available).
Connor Boney, marketing manager for the Maryland-based seafood supplier J.J. McDonnell, said the rough year for blue crabs has also been rough on programs like True Blue and on those in the industry who were unable to keep up with demand for the local product.
“You’re supposed to buy 75 percent of your crabmeat from Maryland for that program,” Boney said. “But it began to carry somewhat of a negative connotation because there’s not enough (blue crabs).”
Vilnit said there were a couple moments in the season when, due to storms or simply no catches, there were no crabs for the picking. Restaurants that were committed to the local meat tried to source their product “as local as possible” and changed their menus to reflect what was more widely available from the Bay.
In that respect, farmed oysters have helped fill the gaps for restaurants looking for local Bay-sourced options. Vilnit said Maryland added 13 new oyster farms this year and expects to see another 100 come online in the coming year.
His department will be kicking off a new Maryland Oyster Pledge program in the coming weeks to continue building the market for these aquaculture programs.
Meanwhile, restaurant goers in the region are developing more of a taste for the half-shelled offerings, thanks in part to creative chefs — bacon-and-cream sauce goes a long way toward converting oyster lovers — and to new varieties.
But that doesn’t mean they’ll lose their love for Maryland crabmeat anytime soon.