While it’s true that the population of blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay is higher than it was last year, it’s not quite time to spread out newspaper pages on a table for a luxurious crab feast.
That’s because last year saw the lowest population ever recorded, said Allison Colden, Maryland executive director at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“We’re still not out of the woods,” she said. “Being above the worst year on record is not a high bar.”
It seems almost unfair, then, that as we struggle with blue crab numbers being too low, there’s a country across the Atlantic Ocean with way too many of them.
In Italy, where the blue crab is an invasive species, population numbers are growing quickly and threatening the country’s clam industry, according to a report from Reuters.
A local marine biologist told the wire service that invasive “blue crabs” (yes, they really put our beloved crustacean in scare quotes) have eaten up to 90% of young clams in some areas, devastating future production.
The leading theory is the crabs were not introduced to Italy’s waters intentionally, but arrived in bilge water aboard cargo ships. The hardest-hit region of Italy has lots of clam farms, giving the crabs large, dense populations of clams to feast on. Couple that with warmer water, which makes it easier for the crabs to survive the winter, and it “sounds like blue crab paradise,” Colden said.
“It’s a perfect Italian vacation spot for the blue crabs in terms of lounging and getting fat and happy,” she said.
Experts in the Mediterranean country told Reuters that it is not possible to eradicate the population of blue crabs in Italy at this point. The crabs are multiplying with great speed, even as residents fish up literal metric tons of blue crab.
And, in news that seems entirely unbelievable in Maryland, where a bushel of steamed crabs is an expensive treat and crab cakes are on just about every restaurant menu, Italians have little desire to eat their way out of this crab conundrum.
“Only a small proportion of the crabs caught are sold for human consumption, as they are a relative novelty attracting little demand,” according to Reuters. “The rest are disposed of, although there are plans to use some for animal feed purposes.”
The Banner asked Colden if it would be possible to help our struggling Chesapeake Bay population by, say, importing massive amounts of live blue crab from Italy. Sadly, it’s not so simple.
Since they are the same type of blue crabs we have here, there’s no concern about them becoming an invasive species in the bay, Colden said. But shipping live crabs from Italy to the shores of the Chesapeake could bring disease or other invasive “hangers on,” which could further harm the bay’s health.
And shipping the crabs straight from Italy to grocery stores, markets or restaurants could end up having a negative effect on Maryland’s economy.
“I think there might be opportunities to market those blue crabs here, or have them be sold in other places. But then we’re talking about competing with our local watermen as well,” Colden said. “If anything, I would just encourage them [Italians] to get used to wonderful taste of blue crabs.”
We concur. If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em.