The field trip was courtesy of a fledgling effort by Maryland to pull chefs out of kitchens to behold the crabs in their Chesapeake Bay habitat and persuade them to buy the local product.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, state officials also planned to launch a program called “True Blue,” to help consumers distinguish which restaurants use the Chesapeake Bay product for their Maryland crab cakes as opposed to using those imported from nations such as Venezuela and the Philippines.
Forty restaurants have volunteered for the program, which allows participants to display a “True Blue” crab logo with the state flag on their menus if they agree to inspections, according to Bay Daily, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation publication.
More than 300 chefs and retail seafood managers who had shunned pricier blue crabs have journeyed out to watch watermen pull wildlife from the Chesapeake Bay, said Steve Vilnit, director of Fisheries Marketing for the state Department of Natural Resources who runs the two-year-old program.
Small’s outing focused on blue crabs, which are making a major comeback in the bay. Maryland’s and Virginia’s governors recently announced the largest crab baby boom in almost two decades, from 207 million juvenile crabs last year to nearly 600 million this year, according to a yearly winter dredge survey conducted by the states.
The growth followed Virginia’s closure of the winter dredge season
, when watermen dragged heavy traps along the marine floor, killing as many crabs as they caught. The dead were mostly pregnant female crabs. The overall population, estimated at a low of about 250 million when the winter dredge closed in 2007, is now more than 750 million.
Seafood wholesalers hope that driving up the blue crab population will drive down their price. Maryland crabs cost about $5 per pound more than crabs from Latin America and Asia.
On a bright, blue day, Small sailed with a 72-year-old waterman, watched highly skilled workers handpick steamed flesh from the shells of thousands of crabs at a processing plant, and listened to a sales pitch promoting the Maryland blue crab as unique — superior to its skinnier cousins from overseas.
“It’s awesome for me to see the source, where it comes from. I understand the beast more,” Small said. “When I was cooking in L.A., we got the Maryland crab, but it was delivered. I was in Virginia one time and saw a blue crab skitter in the water and it was the craziest thing for me.”