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The "Savory Blue Swimmer"
Story by Michelle Brosco Christian
Pulling up pots heavy with blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus), from the lower Potomac River is a task commercial crabber Robert A. ("Bobby") Boarman, of Newburg, has enjoyed for the last 25 years. But Boarman is a "new" crabber in terms of the industry's long history in Southern Maryland.
"Back then, you could catch crabs from start to finish. Crabs were just more plentiful then," Boarman said of when he first started commercial crabbing part-time.
Charles "Quinney" Butler, now 71 years old, agreed with Boarman, saying that in his 57 years of crabbing part-time for the landmark Captain Billy's Crab House in Popes Creek, he's definitely seen the number of crabs decline.
Since around the age of 14, Butler was hanging around the late Captain Billy Robertson, Sr., catching crabs, and he has remained a loyal friend, now crabbing part-time for the restaurant and doing a number of carpentry and repair jobs there. Butler and Robertson's fathers also both worked in the crabbing business together for some 56 years.
"I love it out on the water, it's peaceful," said Butler, who was born and raised about a mile from Popes Creek. He recalls when there was only one crab house on the bank of the river in Popes Creek.
As committed watermen, Boarman and Butler have watched things both change and stay the same in their water-based industry. In these modern times, the crabbing industry has not seen much change in the way crabs are landed, "besides hydraulics and other power lifting aids," said Butler.
In the earliest days of commercial crabbing, the blue crab was caught using nets and trotlines. According to the Maryland Manual, "The efficient crab pot is the main means of commercial crab harvesting. The trotline preceded this method and served well for many years; a few stalwart recreational fishermen still prefer crabbing the old-fashioned way, with a net."
The crab pot was first introduced in the Chesapeake Bay in the early part of the 20th century, and today, according to Lynn Fegley, manager of the Blue Crab Program for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the crab pot is still the most frequently used technique for landing crabs, followed by the trotline. Boarman uses hundreds of crab pots, while Butler prefers a trotline.
In the Beginning…
Before it was popular to gather with friends and family for summer crab feasts at local water-front haunts such as Billy's, Stoney's or the Drift Inn, someone had to be the first to actually catch a crab and try it out for taste. It's unlikely we'll ever know who that someone was, but surely this person must have been either very hungry, very brave- or both.
"There is little doubt that the blue crab's environment was very different before humans went in search of the succulent shellfish," said Kenneth Kaumeyer, curator of estuarine biology, at the Calvert Marine Museum. "The Southern Maryland environment was a wooded watershed, where water temperatures were a fair degree lower than today and only about 10,000 Native Americans were in the entire watershed, so they had almost no impact on the ecology of the Bay," said Kaumeyer.
The first people in Maryland can be traced back 12,000 years; these indigenous people were clearly our culinary groundbreakers. "Maryland's Native Americans left behind large garbage pits full of crab and oyster shells. Chesapeake is a Native American word that means 'great shellfish bay,'" according to Our Thirteen Colonies: The Maryland Colony.
Once colonists arrived in the area, their interest and energy was focused on the abundant land to farm and the value of cash crops such as tobacco and corn. While colonists did fish and eat seafood from the area's many waterways, shellfish was merely a subsistence food, not the kind of treat it is for today's Southern Marylanders.
"Colonists cleared many trees for farming and ship building, which lead to the beginning of the waterways' sedimentation problems," said Kaumeyer. "Before colonists arrived, the water was much clearer and there were large grass beds, creating large refuge areas for crabs," Kaumeyer added.
Southern Maryland fishing communities, such as Solomon's and Broomes Island, were in full swing by the early-to-mid-20th century, when former State Senator C. "Bernie" Fowler recounted his mother regularly and easily pulling out dozens of soft shell crabs from the river near Broomes Island. Many of Southern Maryland's most well-known waterfront communities were born from one commonality- harvesting and processing crabs, fish, oysters and other once-abundant seafood.
Statistical data on Maryland's crabbing industry becomes available in 1871 when "accurate records on fisheries were first compiled," according to Frederick Gutheim's book, The Potomac. As early as 1933, a Maryland Manual entry reads: "…it may be seen that the bulk of the American production [of blue crabs] comes from the Chesapeake."
In the 21st century, according to Fegley, the blue crab fishery still represents the "most economically valuable" fishery in the Chesapeake Bay region. Concern for the well being of one of the state's most prized natural resources has long been an issue that continues today, and the modern commercial crabber still struggles to make a living.
A Maryland Senate proceeding from 1916 reported that a member spoke about "the importance of conserving the crab industry for the crab fishermen…. The protective measures…most essential for the conservation of this industry, are a cull law on hard crabs, five inches from tip to tip of spike, and the protection of the female egg-bearing crabs."
This 1916 Senate proceeding was foreboding as today's Maryland Commercial Fisheries Regulations limit commercial crabbing to various months and times, and sets the starting size of male hard crabs at the same 5 to 5 1/4 inches.
The prowess of the blue crab as a moneymaker and as a local icon was made official in 1996-97, when it was designated the State Crustacean as recorded in the Maryland Manual.
Back to the Future…
Today, Boarman is a full-time commercial crabber who is licensed for well over 400 crab pots and he is also the chairman of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission's Crab Advisory Commission. He estimated that on average for the whole crabbing season, he might pull 6-7 bushels of crabs on a good day. Butler remembers easily pulling 13-14 bushels in his early days of crabbing.
While the crab population looks promising this year and for the future, Boarman said that the crabbing business is not something to be entered into lightly.
"There's a lot of expense in crabbing," he said, explaining that the annual cost of each crab pot and its regular repairs might average $25, and multiplied by 400-plus pots, it can be costly. The rising cost of gas is another concern.
While it's true that there are fewer crabbers and crabs in our waterways today, the state of the blue crab is not as dismal as that of the oyster, which has all but disappeared in Southern Maryland. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's 2004 State of the Bay report, which ranks the blue crab's current condition as a "C" on an "A to F" scale, "The best news about Chesapeake blue crabs is that the population looks stable, albeit at a low level."
In the first months of the 2004 crab harvest, the CBF reported "there are some early signs that the management policies…over the last three years to reduce harvest pressure may be helping." However, the CBF cautioned, "To see real improvement in the crab stock and the crab industry" there must be a team effort "to develop a coordinated, Bay wide approach to crab management."
"There are fewer crabbers today," said Boarman, but he concluded that the life of a waterman is still ideal, because "when I ride to work I get to see the sun rise over the water, and I don't have a boss."
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