ON CHESAPEAKE BAY -- The amazing comeback of the lowly blue crab is a beacon that shines more brightly with hope than any politician's promise.
If the estimates announced a few weeks ago are accurate, there are nearly 800 million crabs scrabbling beneath the Chesapeake this summer, more than enough to satiate the famished claw-crackers of the Eastern Seaboard, with half a billion juveniles and breeding females to be left untaken so they might creep along the bottoms all winter and spawn for next year's feast.
As recently as four years ago, when the crab stocks declined for the 10th straight year and dry-land doomsayers warned of the ineluctable death of one of the continent's most historic and precious ecosystems, no one could have predicted how rapidly such a catastrophe might reverse. Things got so bad the state of Maryland had to grant a pair of $500 survival handouts to each licensed waterman, and hungry tourists saw more crab pots beached on shore than were being heaved from boats. The federal government officially labelled the Chesapeake crab fishery a disaster.
But now, thanks to educated management, judicious harvesting and the magnificent resilience of nature, the famous sharp-clawed bounty of the Chesapeake is here in abundance for a summer of steaming, seasoning, hammering, picking and devouring. The population of blue crabs is the highest ever recorded; perhaps, then, we can dream there still may be a chance for the humpback and the Bengal tiger.
Eager to witness this crustacean renaissance first-hand, I have hitched a ride aboard a 40-foot tub called the Miss Paula to watch her men haul pots of crabs out of the bay's green shallows. We are only a few dozen yards from the sandy cliffs of Maryland as the day's raising and checking of hundreds of baited wire cages begins. In my mind is the novel by James A. Michener that encompasses the history of this broad and fabled bay:
The Chesapeake! The name was familiar to all children, for on this great water strange things occurred. This was the magical place where the waters became even wider than those of the Susquehanna, where storms of enormous magnitude churned up waves of frightening power. This was the river of rivers, where the fish wore precious shells.
Our captain is a 35-year-old Marylander named C.J. Canby, who grew up so close to the bay he could divine its ever-changing, grey-blue moods from his bedroom window. C.J. was not born to be a crabber, though; his father was a Secret Service agent. The long, slow, flat Miss Paula, custom-made at a bayside dockyard to hold stacks of cage-pots and dozens of barrels of squirming, pinching crabs, is named for his mother.
"What does the return of the blue crab mean to you?" I ask him.
"What it says to me," Mr. Canby says, "is that things are looking good; it's not the end of the world; we can bring things back."
Deadliest Catch, this isn't. C. J. Canby can recall only one waterman being knocked overboard by a heaving swell during his decade on the bay. "We were laughing so hard, it took us a long time to get him out," he says. While cold-blooded hotheads wrestle the king of seafood from the cruel ice-bath of Alaska, Canby and his deckhands work so close to the shore they can smell the summer crab- and clambakes wafting from the dockside condos.
"People watch that show and they think we're out here risking our lives every day like they are," Canby smiles. "But in a way, it's the same for us: If you're catching crabs, you're happy. If you don't, it's a long, long day. But when the wind's blowing 25 miles an hour, we don't go out. Those guys in Alaska, they're out there getting pounded for a month."
The Chesapeake coastline off our stern is hardly the virgin wilderness where Michener's runaway from an inland Indian village "exchanged that collection of waffled wigwams for a greater majesty." There's a naval gunnery range atop the cliffs and a nuclear power station 20 kilometres to the south, and I can just see the towers of the Bay Bridge to our north, throbbing with Washington escapees bound for the Atlantic beaches. This makes it even more remarkable such an overdeveloped lagoon might be capable of engendering nearly a billion healthy crabs.
Around here, Canby notes, "there's no sharks, no squid, no shrimp, no seals, no whales, no dolphins." But nearly every cage he brings up contains fish as well as crabs: white perch, croaker, flatfish, suckerfish, menhaden. The day before my voyage, one of Miss Paula's cages yielded a little hitchhiker: a seahorse. Once every century or two, you might see a manatee.
The economics of catching the Chesapeake blue crab are not as cruel as Newfoundland's, but still you don't see Warren Buffett out here with a flatboat and a winch. On an average day, Miss Paula might return to her berth with four of five bushels of medium-sized pinchers, to be sold wholesale at about $100 a bushel, plus a couple of dozen recently molted soft-shells -- the watermen call them "peelers" -- Canby can sell to a shop or restaurant in Baltimore for a sweet three bucks apiece. He's out here six days a week, every week, for half the year, sustaining his wife and year-old son, with another baby on the way.
"Every six months I get a crash," he says.
"What do you do for those six months?" I ask him.
"I try not to spend money," he replies. "And I try not to watch too many advertisements that are trying to talk me into buying something I don't need."
"Is today a good day?" I wonder, as we chug to shore.
The crabber smiles and answers, as waterman have for centuries: "Any day I make it back is a very good day for me."
Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.