It’s the hottest day of the summer on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and at a tiki bar that doesn’t serve alcohol on a windless island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, two teenage boys appear, one holding up a small, live blue crab.
“Hey Steve, will you cook this for me?” the boy holding the crab asks Steve Dunlap, who’s behind the bar. The crab is small and missing a claw, and the kid has him by the backfin, dangling the poor crustacean so it’s splayed out, lone pincher open and ready to clamp down on anything.
“Aw, put it back, Robert,” Dunlap says. Robert sulkily obliges, letting the crab scuttle off into the bay, but makes it clear that he wasn’t going to kill it. Here, on Smith Island, Maryland, there is an overpowering respect, almost a reverence, for the blue crab. At the dead center of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, 12 miles from Maryland’s shore, Smith is a central part of the Maryland crabbing industry, and has been for generations. Here, crab is everything: Food, money, work, family, tradition, history. Crab is life. But it might not be for very much longer.
Up and down the East Coast, the blue crab is known as the most delicious of its species, and Maryland blue crab is the cream of that crop. The taste difference is clear: Blue crab is sweeter, succulent, more plump, more crabby, somehow light and rich at once. At its best, the meat needs absolutely no seasoning, though Old Bay, butter, and vinegar all complement it supremely. You can tell a Gulf blue crab from a Maryland blue crab almost instantly; it’s hardly as flavorful, stringier, the taste flattened.
Blue crab is not only from Maryland; the state just happens to really own the legacy. There are crabbing industries in the Gulf (Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and parts of Texas), the Carolinas, and Virginia, but for Maryland, crabbing is a huge source of income and an identity; it’s the highest-valued fishery industry in the Chesapeake Bay. That is clear nowhere more than Smith Island, at the heart of both the industry and the Bay.
Settled in the 1650s by settlers from England and Wales as a religious enclave, Smith Island is one of the oldest English-speaking settlements in America and aside from losing a couple thousand acres to erosion, it’s stayed pretty much the same. It’s well-known in anthropological circles for being a place where a dialect akin to 17th-century English is preserved, thanks to isolation, and in culinary circles for its famous layer cakes and the best crab cakes anywhere.
Smith Islanders have been crabbing since well before Americans ate crab regularly. The commercial crabbing industry of today is only 150 years old, and until the late 1880s, the vast majority of Americans didn’t have access to it, or saw it as not worth the time (hard to pick with low yield). Some of the older crab meat purveyors on the Eastern Shore boast about being generations old, like the reputed five-generation J.M. Clayton Company in Cambridge, Maryland. Smith Islanders, however, go back 12 generations. Chances are, if you’re eating a dish made with Maryland blue crab meat, or a Maryland soft shell, it came from Smith Island.
Smith’s output is due to its prime location, in the center of the bay’s widest part. Crabbers coming from the mainland would take longer to reach these lush areas, diminishing catch time (or sleeping time) and making it harder to work consistently. When the crabs live in nearby marsh, it’s easier to watch the populations. That regulation is harder when you’re traveling 12 or more miles out every morning. Smith is also in peeler territory; a peeler is a crab about to molt, when it will become a coveted soft shell. The crab shacks along Smith’s docks are filled with rows of pots of peelers the watermen watch closely, waiting to see when they’ll molt. Most who’ve worked the water all their lives can call the time of shedding up the the hour, and treat them delicately. Holding one, still in its vulnerable state, I can feel the life through the softened, smooth shell; press too hard, and my thumb would go right through.
Smith is also the source for most of the best crab meat, the kind that is pre-picked by hand and sold commercially or to restaurants to be made into cakes, dips, or soups. This, not cracking open hard crabs at a feast, is the primary mode of crab consumption in America. Smith’s crab meat is unique in that it’s not separated by lump, backfin, or claw. The whole crab goes into the same bag, which makes for a more flavorful blend of crab meat; two separate cooks on Smith tell me that’s due to the richness of claw meat. One bite of the crab cake from Drum Point Market on Tylerton is enough to spoil anyone forever.
The watermen on Smith say it’s been a good summer for crabbing. Hauls are up, demand is steady. But on the mainland, crab sellers and buyers say it’s becoming harder to get good Maryland crab. The output is smaller now than it used to be, and the yield is largely spoken for. It’s no secret that most big Maryland crab houses get their blues shipped up from the Carolinas or the Gulf; there’s simply too much demand to get it all from the Chesapeake Bay. At some less reputable restaurants, the “Maryland crab” label is often only a reference to the style of steaming (and the heavy doses of Old Bay). There are crab houses all over the state, but the densest concentrations are in Baltimore and Ocean City; of the 22 I called in Baltimore, only three get their crab solely from Maryland; only one crab house and two other seafood-serving restaurants in Ocean City are “True Blue” — a voluntary program created by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to indicate when a restaurant serves only Maryland crab.
A wanting buyer of Smith Island crab can go to a distributor, but often they go directly to the source. Barry Weller is a property manager in Ocean City who drives an hour to Crisfield weekly to pick up Smith Island crab meat, soft shells, and cakes for the fine dining restaurant Liquid Assets (full disclosure: I previously worked for Liquid Assets). He won’t disclose which waterman or Crisfield middleman he buys it from; the supply line is kept secret, and many watermen won’t reveal their customers, either. There are standing orders for restaurants and markets, and if you’re not on the list of repeat buyers, you’ll have to wait for a waterman to have a flush day to pick up any extra.
That’s the rub, though — there aren’t a lot of watermen anymore. The crab population is abundant. It’s the human one doing the labor that is diminishing.
Billy Bruce is a 76-year-old crabber, one of the oldest on Smith. He followed his dad to the water at 14 and got his own boat at 16. Due to recent open heart surgery, he’s not out trawling as much this summer, but still pulls up enough pots on most days to make a living. He’s the first to say young people don’t want to work the water, but he isn’t the last. He estimates there’s about 14 men left who work full time catching hard and soft crabs, and thinks the Smith crabbing industry will hang on, but only for a little while longer. And when it’s gone, “it will hurt them,” he nods, “them” meaning anyone who buys crab. “It’ll hurt ‘em bad.”
Crabbing is hard, dangerous, and unstable work. Unlike other forms of fishing or agriculture that have been mechanized in recent decades, crabbing still has to be done by hand. There are two ways to harvest: Setting out pots, which dangle with bait and have to be pulled up and opened individually; or trawling, dragging large nets across the bay floor, dumping the catch into the boat and sorting through for keepers or trash, again by hand. Crabs have to be of a certain size to be allowed to be kept, and there are strict regulations about when you can keep the females — not when they’re “sponging,” or pregnant.
For the most part, crabs cannot be farmed, like salmon or other seafood, because they’re carnivorous. Kept in the same space — like a breeding tank — they would rip each other to shreds. They also migrate: Female crabs swim to deeper water to mate and give birth, while the males head north into estuaries to grow bigger. To catch them, you have to know their patterns.
This makes crabbers something like aquatic hunters. They start their days around 4 or 5 in the morning and come back in the late afternoon to unload their catch and pack the crabs into sawgrass to sell, if they’re being sold live for steaming, or to steam them themselves, if they’re picking the meat to sell personally, which is what a lot of Smith Islanders do. The wives — crabbers are almost exclusively men — do the picking (again by hand), which they can do at an alarming rate. Tina Corbin, the manager of the Smith Island Crabmeat Co-op on Tylerton, says her record per crab is 26 seconds; one night, she picked 40 lbs of crab meat. There is a form of mechanized picking, common on Hoopers Island (another main port for Maryland crab) but every woman I spoke to, and Billy Bruce, too, asserts that it’s not as effective.
Thus, crabbing means long, arduous, often thankless days. It’s been kept alive by family tradition, but with new industries available elsewhere on the more exciting mainland, younger generations just don’t see the appeal of that anymore.
Smith is tiny and isolated. The population was 180 people in 2015, and is surely less now; it’s been declining sharply for decades. (The 2010 census recorded 276 people, compared to 675 in 1980.) Residents are spread out in three communities — Tylerton, Ewell, and Rhodes Point — over two islands that collectively make up “Smith.” There is no government, no mayor or city council, no police. Also no pharmacy, no grocery store, no bars (Smith is dry, though Dunlap claims people smuggle booze in regularly), and the three restaurants between the two islands, which mostly serve tourists. There are few cars, most getting around by golf cart or bike, and the ferry to the mainland takes about 45 minutes in good seas. The people who live there self-govern, and meet once a summer on Ewell for a mandatory week-long Methodist camp meeting to take stock. Walking around, it feels like a ghost town.
I asked Robert, the crab-catching teen, if he’ll stay on Smith. He will, but vehemently says he won’t work the water. He’s 15 and works construction — which is more lucrative — and thinks he might drop out of school soon for it. He also likes that it lets him visit the mainland for work, but come back to the quiet of home.
The two other teens I meet — the only two I see — want to leave, though. Cathleen Tyler is 20, works in the ice cream shop on Ewell, and is in school for computer science. There aren’t many needs for an IT tech on Smith, and she’ll leave soon; there’s currently a boy holding her back, a crabber, only three years into the profession, who she’s begging to quit so they can move inland. Jessica Marshall, 19, works the counter of Drum Point Market on Tylerton and says the same: She’s going to community college for elementary education, and knows there’s more opportunity elsewhere. All of the kids, and indeed, every person I spoke to over my multiple visits, talk profusely about their love for Smith — the beauty, the solitude, the community. They also know it’s not sustainable.
The harbor on Smith is in full operation, though it doesn’t look like it. The docks are warped, uneven so as to looks like twisted roller coaster tracks, and so weathered they’re nearly black. The crab shacks attached to them sag gently, like they might just sigh into the bay at any moment.
I met Lee Smith* and his father John as they’re unpacking John’s boat on Tylerton. Lee is large, and looks in his early twenties. He’s been working the water since he was “knee high, abouts” and though he didn’t necessarily want to do it for a living, “someone had to help Pop.” In Lee’s case, he says he had the bad fortune of being the son left behind; his older brother is a tugboat captain up the bay. I ask if there are many other crabbers his age continuing the tradition, expecting the answer I get: No.
Other industries that white men no longer want to work have survived on immigrant labor, but crabbing is not yet one of them. Some of the larger crab companies inland, like J.M. Clayton, employ Hispanic women as pickers, and in Crisfield there is a long tradition of black men and women being champion crab pickers and oyster shuckers; ironically, the labor that’s historically been seen as lesser and shunted off to people of color is easier, better paid, and offers more upward mobility than the “glory” job of crabbing.
But to work the water successfully, you have to know the water intimately: Its patterns and storms; the way the crabs move, hide, mate. It’s a lifetime of knowledge, which crabbers says is impossible to impart on a seasonal laborer. One would have to move to Smith or Crisfield and work on a boat and make very little money to do it successfully eventually (no guarantees), which is not what most itinerant laborers are looking to sign up for.
It also must be noted that Smith isn’t particularly friendly to outsiders. I get stares as I walk around: A young woman with arms of tattoos asking questions of everyone is suspect, and many refuse to speak to me. And I happen to be white; census estimates show there are no people of color on Smith. Black watermen have existed in the bay alongside white watermen for generations, but, as is typical, their efforts and presence are largely undocumented. Often, they were confined to labor: shucking oysters or picking crabs, building boats, or working as hands. Those who succeeded, with their own boats and businesses, often did so in black watermen communities, like Bellevue, Maryland. (There are no records of Hispanic watermen, unsurprising given the Hispanic presence in the area is small to nonexistent — census data from 2000 and 2010 shows most Eastern Shore counties are less than 5 percent Hispanic.)
There’s another factor portending the end of Smith’s crabbing days: The loss of the island itself. Smith, like many coastal areas and islands across America, is eroding and, in parts, sinking. Tides are higher than they’ve ever been, the storms greater. Hurricane Sandy was devastating, and another hurricane of the same scale (like recent Harvey, Irma, or Maria) would wipe out the just-recovered harbor. No locals will say the words global warming, but they all know the place won’t be there forever; most estimate another 100 years. (It will probably be much less — a 2015 study published online in Nature on Tangier Island, a nearby, Virginia island very similar to Smith, estimates it will be uninhabitable in as little as 25 years. ) Lee, for the record, thinks Smith will be fine. “Island’s been here more’n a hundred years,” he replies, and cites a rock jetty that’s being built around the island to build up silt again as a bulwark against land loss.
It’s remained several hundred years, in fact, but under more stable conditions. According to NASA, sea levels are projected to rise anywhere from 0.2 meters to 2.0 meters (0.66 to 6.6 feet) by 2100. Considering Smith is currently at sea level, almost any rise at all will put its buildings in jeopardy. And as a T Magazine piece about Tangier pointed out, federal government incentive to save these places is slim. When the rise starts, there will be areas that get priority for saving by tax dollars; New York, Miami, New Orleans. An island of 180 people in the Chesapeake Bay is probably not going to be one of them.
But the locals don’t seem panicked. Each person argues over and over that the island’s demise “won’t happen in my lifetime.” Weller says there might be another reason for the perceived nonchalance. “Oh, they’re concerned all right,” he says. “They just won’t tell you. You’re a stranger. They’re very private people. They probably think you’re from the government.”
It’s always difficult to predict how the crab season — which lasts from April until early November, and is strictly regulated by the Department of Natural Resources — will go. (This year, the season was shortened by 10 days, due to a shortage of juvenile crabs.) Changes in water temperature, migration patterns, and the fishing levels make it fluctuate from year to year, and there have been periods all through the last century when scientists predicted the end of the blue crab only to see the population rebound. They’re hardy creatures, and regulations have allowed them to maintain at least a sizeable existence even as the demand became insatiable.
Despite that, we’ll eventually stop eating Maryland crab the way we do. But it won’t be because the crabs don’t exist. Mother Nature’s shifting elements will eventually wash away and permanently alter the tenuous environment of the blue crab, but long before then, time will pass by the people who supply it. The future is not in unglamorous, thankless manual labor. The future cares little for tradition unless that tradition is marketable. And while the blue crab legacy will cling on, it will be hollow. Lesser — like a Gulf crab compared to a Maryland one. And that will be a shame.
Mickie Meinhardt was raised on Maryland crabs and now just writes and dreams about them from Brooklyn. She is a former Creative Writing Fellow at the New School. Gunner Hughes is an East Coast photographer: Maryland born and bred, with a stint in Florida, and currently based in New York.
Editor: Erin DeJesus
Fact-checked by Dawn Mobley