Our Crabbing Heritage

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Anyone who has ever lived on or visited Delmarva knows about the popularity of blue crabs. People come from all over just to enjoy them served hot from the steamer, as crab cakes, or in some other tasty dish. The story of these crustaceans tells the story of Delmarva.

Crab meat is an expensive delicacy for the average diner. But with a little string and a few chicken necks anyone can enjoy their own crab feast. One distinction between the way crabs are prepared here and the way they are done elsewhere is that here they are steamed - not boiled - to preserve their naturally sweet flavor.

For centuries native people living on the Delmarva Peninsula have enjoyed the bounty provided by its waters. "Chesapeake" is a Susquehanock word meaning "great shellfish bay." When European settlers came they found it teaming with all sorts of seafood just waiting to be harvested. The Latin name for this species of crab is Callinectes Sapidus, which means beautiful swimmers.

Since the mid 1800's, crabs have been caught commercially in the region. Since then life in many waterfront communities of the Eastern Shore have been supported by catching crabs, oysters, and fish. But, this way of life is changing, slipping away with modern conventions and an evolving bay.

The crab fisheries here have seen declines in some recent years which have led to greater regulation and higher prices. Some scientists think it is a natural cycle of these hardy crustaceans. Others attribute the change to damage caused by hurricanes which have depleted the salt grass that crabs thrive in. Residential and industrial pollution remains a great concern to many environmentalists. Debate on how to maintain the hard crab population continues between those who make their living on the water, the politicians, and the scientists. All want the same thing: a healthy productive bay.

It is hard work to make crabbing pay. And because of lower harvests and increasing costs it is not getting any easier. Commercial crab picking has supported many a family on the shore, but it remains low paying work. For several generations African Americans filled many of these jobs. Better education and working opportunities have made these jobs harder for cannery owners to fill, even when immigration laws have been relaxed to allow them dispensation to import migrant laborers willing to do this work.

Thus the Atlantic Blue Crab has contributed to Delmarva's melting pot of many cultures. Crabbing as an industry rises and falls along with our economy and with it the prospects of those who work in it. Crabs represent all the potential of our natural resources and the conflicts we have over sustainable markets versus a sustainable environment. They are the food of peasants made fashionably chic and therefore overpriced. The crab is also symbolic of our wish to hold on to our cultural heritage in the face of our ever changing society.

But bills continue to be paid from crabbing and good memories are made as crabs are celebrated all summer long across the peninsula at back yard picnics and local restaurants. Folks do it up really big on Labor Day weekend with the Annual Hard Crab Derby at Somers Cove Marina in Crisfield the "Crab Capitol of the World"; where they have Cooking and Picking contests, crab races, docking contests, and all kinds of other entertainment; all in honor of the "beautiful swimmer".

Click here to find out more about this and other events, and visit this link to more about crabs and how to cook them.

Click here to read about recent research on the health of our crab fishery.