This month’s big question: In the Chesapeake Bay country, having a case of crabs is definitely not a social liability!
I believe that all the bay area natives are actually born knowing how to crack crabs. Maybe it’s genetic? Watch even the younger kids deftly disjoint a backfin to get that tasty gobbet of meat, or clutch and wield a wooden crab mallet in their still-small hands.
I was born on a different tidewater altogether, and didn’t learn until a more advanced age how to peel back the tab and lift off the shell without spiking myself. But, it didn’t take long for me to understand the important role of crabs in the region’s social fabric, or how the almost tribal gathering-together to crack some crabs can have such salubrious effects. Like Natty Boh once told us, the Chesapeake is indeed the Land of Pleasant Living, and a crab feast can be one of the more pleasant rituals.
It wasn’t always so. Not until the 19th century and the increased use of railroads, canals, and steamboats to transport agricultural and seafood products could a market open for the bay’s crabs. Prior to that, even Crisfield, a modern-day crab mecca and home to the annual National Hard Crab Derby, made its living primarily on oysters and terrapin. Increased transportation, combined with reliable refrigeration, led to an increased demand for the Chesapeake blue crab.
This year’s harvest
Enough history! Every year at this time the big question is: What are the prospects for this year’s crab harvest?
“There are so many environmental factors that affect blue crabs,” wrote Brenda K. Davis, who manages the Blue Crab Program for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. “We don’t make predictions about the annual harvest. That being said, given the increase in abundance, it’s reasonable to expect the harvest in 2016 to be larger than it was in 2015.”
DNR recently reported that the bay’s crab population jumped 38 percent last year over 2014 — from 297 million to 411 million — and 35 percent this year over last. Bay-wide, the agency estimates a crab population of 553 million, the fourth highest level in two decades. The numbers of spawning females nearly doubled, and the number of crabs big enough to eat also increased.
Those numbers are largely determined by the winter dredge survey, the only bay-wide fishery independent effort to estimate the number of blue crabs living in the Chesapeake Bay. Since 1988, DNR, the University of Maryland Chesapeake Biological Lab, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and the fishing industry use the survey’s statistics to help manage the species and calculate the percentage of the population that can be harvested. Last year’s harvest of nearly 27 million pounds was worth more than $54.5 million dockside, paid to the harvesters.
“Due to a milder winter, favorable currents and tides, and wise bay-wide management measures, the Maryland crab population continues to rebound and strengthen,” said DNR’s fisheries service director Dave Blazer. “With an increase in abundance and steady recruitment, we fully anticipate a robust crab season this year.”
DNR went on to announce that because the 2015 harvest increased over 2014 and remained at a sustainable level for the eighth consecutive year, the “… increased abundance means that a slight liberalization of harvest limits for female crabs may be warranted this summer.”
This month’s recipe — a traditional Baltimore classic — comes from U.S. Sen. Barbara Milkulski, as posted on the Maryland Seafood Marketing Program’s website, seafood.maryland.gov.
1 pound jumbo lump or backfin crab meat
2 slices white bread
1 tablespoon mayonnaise (light or regular)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons Old Bay or Wye River seasonings
1 tablespoon snipped parsley (optional)
1 egg (or substitute for special diets)
Tartar sauce or cocktail sauce
Beat the egg in a bowl. Trim the crusts from the bread and break the slices into small pieces. Add these pieces to the egg. Mix in the mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, Chesapeake seasoning, and parsley, and beat well.
Place the crabmeat in a bowl and pour the egg mixture over the top. Gently toss or fold the ingredients together, taking care not to break up the lumps of crabmeat.
Form the cakes by hand into patties about 3 inches around and 3/4-inch thick. Shape should be like a cookie, not like a meatball or golf ball. Place the cakes in the refrigerator for at least 45 minutes before cooking. This is very important so the cakes don’t fall apart.
Broil the crab cakes: Slip them under a preheated broiler until nicely browned, turning to cook evenly, about 4 to 5 minutes on each side.
Or, saute: Heat a small amount of butter or olive oil in a skillet and saute the cakes, turning several times, until golden brown or about 8 minutes total cooking time. Serve at once with tartar sauce, mustard, or cocktail sauce on the side.