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Blue Crabs: A Messy Meal from the Chesapeake Bay

2017-08-26

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  • What have ten legs, two of them large claws, a hard shell cover, and live in oceans, fresh water, and on land? Crabs, of course!
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  • There are thousands of different kinds of crabs all over the world.
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  • They can be as small as a few millimeters across or grow as big as 4 meters.
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  • And all play an important part in the environments in which they live.
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  • Crabs may look strange.
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  • But many people also find them delicious.
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  • The blue crab is an especially popular crab for eating in the United States.
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  • These crabs can grow up to about 23 centimeters and they get their name from the blue coloring on the legs and claws.
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  • Blue crabs live in the waters of the western Atlantic Ocean, and in the Gulf of Mexico.
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  • However, one place in America is especially famous for its blue crabs: the Chesapeake Bay.
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  • This largest U.S. estuary borders Maryland and Virginia.
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  • Both states have long made use of the Chesapeake for food, transportation, and fun.
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  • All around the area you can see images of the blue crab on clothing, advertisements, cars, and in restaurant windows.
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  • Scientists in Maryland and Virginia say the bay holds hundreds of millions of blue crabs.
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  • From early spring through much of fall thousands of people hit the water to capture some of these creatures.
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  • Pete White works with Captain White’s Seafood City in Washington, D.C.
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  • The family-owned business gathers crabs and other seafood from the bay and sells it at its store right along the Potomac River.
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  • White told VOA that his family has been in the business for about 100 years. He is a big fan of Chesapeake blue crabs.
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  • “[These] are the best crabs, in my opinion, out of all the country,” White said.
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  • “I get a lot of people coming from Pennsylvania … a lot of people out of Jersey, New York, North Carolina. … They come from Georgia and they take them home on their car ride.”
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  • White said blue crabs are special because of their sweet meat.
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  • There are many ways to cook blue crabs. Some people like to grill them, while others make crab soup.
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  • But the cooking style most traditional to the area is steaming.
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  • The first step, White explained, is to combine water or beer with vinegar in a large, metal container. Then, White adds “Old Bay.”
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  • Old Bay is a seasoning product of hot and salty spices.
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  • It was created in Baltimore, Maryland in 1939.
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  • Then you turn on the heat and wait for the liquid to boil.
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  • The crabs are always cooked alive.
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  • But, White suggested, they should not touch the water directly.
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  • They normally are placed flat on a rack just above the water.
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  • Old Bay can be added to each layer of crabs.
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  • It takes 20 to 30 minutes for the steam from the boiling liquid to cook the crabs.
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  • Then, they are removed from the container.
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  • And White said, they can be mixed with more Old Bay.
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  • Cooking crabs is fairly easy.
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  • But eating them can be a challenge.
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  • The shells are still very hard.
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  • Some people use special tools called crackers and mallets to crack the shells and reach the meat.
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  • Other use their hands, breaking at weak points of the shell.
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  • Either way, it is a messy meal that usually leaves the eaters covered in shell, bits of meat and lots of red seasoning.
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  • Each blue crab only has between about 60 and 100 grams of meat in them.
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  • So sellers most often sell them by the bushel, meaning in groups of about 60 to 100.
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  • People usually buy them when they are feeding a lot of people.
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  • The so-called crab feast has become a summer tradition in the Chesapeake region.
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  • Kate Livie knows a lot about crab feasts.
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  • She is the director of education at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland.
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  • Livie says that close access to the Bay and its resources have always been important to people.
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  • Native Americans such as the Powhatan, the Piscataway and the Nanticoke lived in the area long before Europeans arrived in the 1500s.
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  • Scientists have found evidence that these Native Americans enjoyed crabs as well as other seafood, such as oysters.
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  • In fact, oysters were the main seafood of choice from the Chesapeake for many early years, Livie says.
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  • But improvements in food preservation, especially in keeping it cold, changed everything for the crab market in the warm summer months.
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  • “Although [blue crabs] were [eaten] through the 17th and 18th century, you couldn’t sell more than you could eat in a day,” she told VOA via Skype.
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  • “So food preservation [technology] and transportation turned crabs from, kind of, free but priceless, into an incredibly successful and economically [important] harvest.”
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  • There was also improvement in the crabbing industry.
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  • A local fisherman invented a trap for crabs in the 1920s.
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  • The trap, called a crab pot, made it easier to catch the animals.
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  • Plus, Livie says, Old Bay and some advertising campaigns helped grow the crab market.
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  • And she she says the blue crab became a major part of the Maryland identity.
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  • However, the blue crab has weathered some stormy seas.
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  • Bruce Vogt is a manager of the Chesapeake Bay office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.
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  • He says that pollution and other problems have had a serious effect on the health of the bay and its crabs.
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  • In fact, in 2008 scientists reported that the blue crab came very close to disappearing from the Chesapeake completely.
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  • But efforts that began in the 1970s to improve the Chesapeake’s conditions continue, Vogt says.
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  • And this year, researchers estimated there were 254 million female blue crabs in the bay, the largest population since 1990.
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  • Vogt argues that people who love crabs cannot simply hope they will always be there.
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  • He says people must work to guarantee their survival.
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  • That is why experts push for conservation action, including limiting the harvest of females to about 25 percent.
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  • “There’s obviously a lot of work to do,” Vogt told VOA via Skype.
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  • “We can’t just sit back and expect that everything is going well now and we’ll have crabs in the future.”
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  • I’m Pete Musto. And I’m Lucija Millonig.
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