These keystone communities offer cover and a variety of food
as the young crabs molt every few days, growing quickly.
Several molts later, as their swimming ability grows stronger,
blue crabs seek deeper waters, where they encounter oyster
reefs that offer rich sources of food. In deeper water with
muddy bottoms outside the reefs, they find communities of
soft clams and marine worms. With all the Chesapeake offers
them, they spread far and wide.
While both underwater grasses and oysters show promise
from improving water quality and intensive restoration,
the mud-bottom, clam-and-worm communities have been
decimated by oxygen-depleted dead zones. Recent progress
through the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint has oxygen
conditions improving, but slowly. We’ll have to persist if we
want our crabs to reclaim these valuable summer habitats.
A Treat to Eat
Despite these problems, Chesapeake crabs have become
staples of our diet and culture. Crab feasts go back centuries
in Native American culture, but until 140 years ago, crabmeat
was strictly a special treat consumed immediately after
harvesting to avoid spoilage.
Change came in the 1870s, when steamboat lines established
webs of reliable, speedy (for the times) service that
connected rural wharves and towns to commercial hubs
in Richmond; Norfolk; Fredericksburg; Washington, D.C.;
Salisbury; Cambridge; Chestertown; Annapolis; and especially
Baltimore. Around the same time, rail lines began serving both
sides of the Bay, with a crucial branch line tying Crisfield,
Maryland, to the New York, Philadelphia, and Norfolk
Railroad. Meanwhile, developments in refrigeration allowed
the shipping of picked crabmeat and soft crabs on longer
journeys, opening sales as far away as Chicago and St. Louis.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
watermen caught hard crabs with trotlines tended by log
canoes and skiffs. Soft crabs and peelers got scooped up by
“scrapes,” toothless iron dredges pulled through eelgrass
beds. Given the habitat importance of those grass beds, that
practice sounds unsustainable. It would be for most other
species of underwater grasses, but eelgrass grows from strong
root systems, so the smooth lower bars of the scrapes glide
over healthy blades and mow older blades so that new growth
can follow. The watermen crabbed under sail until gasoline
engines became widely available for marine use, and most
converted to the faster power.
Harvesting technology made a quantum leap in the 1930s
when Benjamin F. Lewis of Harryhogan on Virginia’s Northern
Neck perfected his patented wire mesh crab pot. It replaced
the trotline in Virginia and in larger open waters of Maryland.
As powered workboats gradually grew larger, watermen fished
more pots, baited and set beneath buoys.
Crisfield, Maryland, chartered in 1872, boomed as a
busy sea port and major crab-processing center.