To say the blue crab is iconic in Maryland would be an understatement. For generations, it’s been more than a crustacean best served smothered in Old Bay, submerged in soup, or lumped into a crab cake. To many, it conjures up lifelong memories of good times with family and friends. To others, it embodies their career, culture, and way of life along the water. Regardless of what the blue crab means to the individual, however, it is almost universally accepted that Maryland blue crabs flat out taste better than their counterparts from other locations.
That being said, you’d expect every crab house and restaurant along the Chesapeake Bay to proudly serve crabs caught locally. But you’d be wrong. An alarming trend has emerged over the last few decades, raising concerns within the Maryland crabbing industry and prompting action by state officials who hope to reverse it.
For years, increasing demand for crabs and crab meat has resulted in many Maryland businesses looking outside of the Chesapeake Bay region for suppliers, most notably Indonesia, Venezuela, and the Gulf of Mexico, where constant warmer water temperatures yield a larger abundance of crabs. Larger supplies of crab combined with lower labor costs to pick them abroad produces imported crab meat that costs as much as 50% less than that sourced locally.
This sad reality means, unfortunately, seeing a Maryland-style crab cake on a menu does not necessarily mean the crab inside it came from Maryland. In fact, as much as 90% of annual crab meat sales in Maryland do not come from Maryland blue crabs, or even blue crabs at all. The blue swimmer crabs that populate Indonesia and Southeast Asia are a completely different species than Maryland blue crabs and, to many Marylanders, the difference in taste is easily discernible.
Maryland blue crab meat is characterized by a sweet, delicate flavor that comes from fat deposits that help insulate the crab during cold winter months in the Bay. Crabs from more southern climates, where water temperatures remain constantly warm, have no need for extra insulation, therefore do not develop the distinct flavor-packed fattiness of Maryland blue crabs. Not only do foreign crabs lack the unique flavor profile of Chesapeake Bay crabs, but the meat tends to be less fresh by the time it hits your table because it must be frozen or pasteurized and travel thousands of miles before being served. Crabs from local suppliers are often picked, processed, and delivered within hours of coming out of the Bay or surrounding waterways.
There is a ray of hope emerging from this grey cloud of bad news, however. True Blue, an initiative implemented by the Department of Natural Resources in 2012, is a voluntary program created to raise public awareness about Maryland blue crabs, or lack thereof, at local restaurants, and promote those that sell only local crab meat. In order to be part of the True Blue program, and display the special certification logo, businesses must randomly provide invoices to the DNR to prove at least 75% of their crabs come from Maryland. The program is still in its infancy, but has already seen dramatic improvement from its first to second season.
In 2012, only 26 Maryland establishments were recognized by True Blue, but that number skyrocketed to over 150 in 2013. As word continues to spread about the program, and customer awareness and demand for Maryland crabs that actually come from Maryland grows, True Blue’s influence over the local seafood industry should continue to gain momentum; which is exactly what program brainchild Steve Vilnit intended. “Too often (customers) might be getting imported crabs and think they’re buying local crab meat,” says Vilnit, who is the Director of Fisheries Marketing for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Buying local crab not only ensures customers receive the highest quality product available, but also benefits local waterman and processing plants and helps sustain one of Maryland’s oldest, most important industries. In addition to promoting the sale and consumption of local crabs, True Blue was designed to balance crab prices throughout the year and prevent them from dropping off in the fall when demand is lower. It is still too early to gauge the exact impact of True Blue on the Maryland crab industry, but the large jump in participation from year one to year two shows just how serious local businesses, and consumers, are about their home grown crustaceans.
In Ocean City, True Blue participation remains relatively low. This is not to imply restaurants aren’t selling authentic Maryland blue crabs, many are, but the program has clearly not had the same sociopolitical impact as in Annapolis, Baltimore, and other Maryland cities, yet. As awareness about True Blue expands, however, social pressure is sure to mount on Ocean City businesses to join the program and show their support for the local crabbing industry. One thing is certain, Marylanders are passionate about their crabs and, thanks to True Blue, if a business claims to sell ones that come from the Chesapeake region, sooner or later, they’re going to have to prove it.