It's easy to find Maryland crabs on land: An image of a blue crab graces one of the state's license plates, and Pinch, a fuzzy blue creature in a baseball jersey, prances around as the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs' mascot. This year, though, crabs have been considerably harder to locate in Maryland waters.
A harsh winter killed off more than a quarter of the crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, leaving about 411 million crabs for catching, according to The Washington Post. The short supply has driven up the per-bushel retail cost from $150 in 2012 to $250, with sellers along the Atlantic hiking up prices.
Still, many Marylanders are keeping up lifelong traditions of eating the celebrated crustaceans at least once a week during the season. “It would have to get awful expensive for me to give it up,” a devoted fan told The Baltimore Sun.
For seven things that residents throughout the blue crab corridor should know about their favorite summertime shellfish, read on:
1. Stone crabs and spider crabs are stuck hustling along the ocean floor, but the blue crab wasn't named Callinectes sapidu, or beautiful swimmer, for nothing. Blue crabs have paddle-shaped back legs called “swimmerettes” that rotate 20-40 times a minute, propelling them swiftly through the water.
2. Softshell crabs are graded according to a formal set of measurements, but hardshell crabs are typically classified as jumbo, large or medium, sometimes referred to by dock sellers as numbers one, two and three. Sizing standards are regional, so a number one crab in Virginia might be sold as a number two crab in South Carolina. Crab connoisseurs recommend avoiding puny number threes, no matter how attractive the price.
3. Once purchased, a blue crab should be kept cold and alive: Keeping it in the refrigerator accomplished the first objective, but not the second. The best storage strategy is a cooler filled with ice. If crabs get very cold, they'll become so lethargic that they appear dead, which is why crabs should be allowed to warm up prior to cooking. (Legitimately dead crabs should be discarded.)
4. More than two out of every 100 American adults are allergic to shellfish. About the same percentage of American children is allergic to nuts. Crab, shrimp and lobster are the leading cause of allergic reactions related to shellfish.
5. Blue crabs will eat almost anything, including fellow blue crabs, which account for about 10 percent of the average crab's diet. They also like fish, clams, snails, mussels and seaweed.
6. When commercial crabbers bait their pots, they tend to use shad or another cheap, oily fish. Recreational crabbers are more apt to use chicken or turkey necks, although the voraciousness of blue crabs means there's a long list of proteins that work in the pot. The website Blue Crab Archives is a proponent of bull lips. “Bull lip is easily obtained from any beef slaughterhouse,” it advises. “Be sure to have an axe handy to chop it up!”
7. Despite Maryland's identification with blue crabs, the nation's largest blue crab fishery is in Louisiana. The majority of crabs caught are sent to Maryland, where they're used to make “Maryland crab cakes.” As Washington City Paper protested, “Some chefs argue that 'Maryland crab cake' refers to the style, not the ingredient. And it's not illegal to call these Maryland crab fakes 'Maryland crab cakes.' But the phrasing is misleading, especially at a time when consumers want to buy local and know where their food comes from.”