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Will crab sidle off to oblivion?
Crab woes bring back memories of days when they were more plentiful.

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Date published: 6/15/2003


WHEN I WAS a kid growing up in Baltimore, my dad and I would make an occasional summer-morning trip to the fish market at Fells Point, where we would buy a bunch of live crabs and take them home to steam.

Whether they knew what they were in for is hard to say, but getting them from the carton into the steamer pot was always a challenge. My dad handled the transfer pretty well, but by accident or on purpose, one or two always would get loose in the kitchen, and we'd have corral the escapees while keeping our toes clear of angry pinchers.

Ever since those days, there's been little more enticing to me than sitting down to a mess of crabs and picking away. Just a knife; no mallets allowed. If you wiggle that backfin and pull just right, out comes a big lump of succulent meat that sends you directly to culinary heaven. When beer was later added to the experience, I knew the magnetism of life in the Chesapeake Bay region would never let me go.

Word that the bay's crab population is in serious decline has me worried. It's not just that the crabs seem smaller now, or that the price is ludicrous, but rather that the blue crab's plight is indicative of all that is wrong with the bay and its once-flourishing fisheries.

Rob Brumbaugh, a fisheries scientist in Norfolk with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is about as intimate with the crab situation as one can get. In one sense, he says, crab harvests have always been wildly cyclical. But they would range from good to huge. Over the past decade, however, the numbers have declined but failed to rebound. There's never been a sustained period as bad as this, he says.

And if the crab fishery ever collapses, the impact on jobs, local and state economies, and the worldwide passion for the estuary and what comes out of it could be irreparably damaged.

Politicians on all levels these days are the rope in a tug of war between funding priorities. From homeland defense to the elementary school around the corner, the squeaky wheels squeak even louder when there's less money to go around.

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