Asian crabmeat invades the United States

If you look carefully at the label on the container of crabmeat you put in your shopping cart at the super market, the fine print will probably say “Product of Thailand” or of Indonesia or Vietnam, or China. Not long ago, the label would have identified the product as coming from the USA.

This invasion of the American crabmeat market from the Far East is just another result of the gradual and steady degradation of the Chesapeake Bay. The oyster populations were the first to go because of pollution, diseases and over fishing. Now, most of the oysters you buy are not the native American oyster but the Japanese variety, artificially propagated on the West Coast, though the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico still maintain a profitable but limited harvest of these succulent bivalves.

Those who have worked the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries for generations are known as watermen and have relied on catches of oysters during the cold months and blue crabs during the warm months for their livelihood. There is an old saying among watermen that “if you don’t make it on oysters by Christmas, you ain’t going to make it.” Most of their income depended on the oyster, with the crab harvest barely paying the day-to-day expenses. Watermen are a vanishing breed of independent, self-reliant individuals, and the drastic diminishment of Chesapeake crabs will force many of them to seek work elsewhere. I once asked a waterman why he continued to battle the sea, the weather, and many times an uncertain market for his catch, and he replied, “Because that’s what I do best.”

The supply of blue crabs throughout the Chesapeake system was thought to be exempt from the fate that befell the oyster. But, gradually over the years, the crab numbers have slowly, but surely, dwindled. Crabs can tolerate more pollution than oysters, and they have not been subjected to the ravages of diseases, as have the oysters. The main cause of the decline in the number of crabs is from over fishing, and the indiscriminate taking of female crabs, almost whenever and wherever the waterman wished. The unrealistic attitude of many watermen is, “Get ’Em today and to hell with tomorrow.”

The Baltimore Sun newspaper has instigated a series of investigative articles dealing with the invasion of Asian crabmeat and has called attention to its economic importance. Companies making the highly desirable Maryland crab cake are now mainly using crabmeat from Asia, where formerly Chesapeake crabs were the source of the main ingredient in their product.

This demand for crabmeat has spawned a new industry in several Asian countries, especially Thailand and Vietnam. Fortunately for crab entrepreneurs in Asia, a closely-related cousin of the American blue crab (called the swimming blue crab) occurs in great numbers, at least for the time being. The introduction of this type of fishing into poverty-ridden areas has proven to be of great benefit to the economies and individuals of these countries. In addition to the individuals who go to sea to catch the crustaceans, there is an ample supply of “crab pickers” waiting on shore to extract the succulent meat from the shells to be pasteurized and ready for shipment.

The availability of crab pickers in the U.S. is another problem those who deal in Chesapeake crabmeat have to face. Many of the pickers in the U.S. are illegal aliens and move from job to job as the Immigration Service closes in on them.

In the April 29, 2006, issue, the Sun presented some meaningful statistics that emphasize the condition of the American crabmeat supply as compared to alien imports. The Sun reports that in 2005, about 45 million pounds of crabmeat were imported as compared with approximately 2 million pounds generated in Maryland. Other data presented indicate the value of imported crabmeat rose from about $103 million in the year 2000 to close to $300 million in the year 2005.

The main reason for the acceptance of the Asian product is that even the most experienced crabmeat gourmand cannot detect a difference in the taste of a Maryland blue crab as opposed to an Asian blue swimming crab.

As for myself, I guess I will always prefer a real Maryland crab cake made the time-honored way by this recipe (modified from one given in the Sun): Slowly mix an abundance of Chesapeake Bay crabmeat with mayonnaise, mustard, Worcester sauce, cracker crumbs, eggs, and Old Bay spice. Form the mass into a cake and deep fry in oil. Bon appétit!

From the Aug. 9-15, 2006, issue

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