In April 2006, a crabber named Craig Ray took me out on his Carolina skiff to check out the crab harvest. We were crabbing Keith Lake between Port Arthur and Sabine Pass, and I was blown away by how many big crabs were coming out of the water. The size of crabs is very important to chefs and consumers because the big ones yield a lot of meat and the little ones can be more trouble than they are worth.
Crabs have to measure five inches from "point to point" (from one side spike to the other) to be legally harvested. #1 jimmies (males) measure at least 5 1/2 inches from the tip of one spike to the other. There are various names for larger sizes, including jumbo crabs and colossal crabs.
On Craig Ray's boat, the big males were going into one crate and the small crabs were going into another. "Where can I get big crabs like this?" I asked, holding up a monster from the #1 crab box.
"Maryland," Craig Ray responded. He explained that he got top dollar for his big crabs from a local distributor that shipped them to Maryland. "They are paying $60 a dozen for crabs in Maryland crab houses," Ray told me. "Nobody in Texas is going to pay those kind of prices." Ray sold the little crabs to local customers, including Sartin's in Nederland. I first wrote about Texas crabbers selling their best crabs to Maryland wholesalers in Crab Man, an article about Doug Sartin in the Houston Press that appeared in 2006.
People like to believe that the seafood they eat in waterfront restaurants comes from the nearest body of water. And they feel defrauded when they discover it didn't. Maryland Your Crab is a Lie was the headline of a recent article in Slate.
Seafood distributor Jim Gossen explained to me that the incredible demand for live crab in Maryland and the escalating prices long ago doomed the Texas and Louisiana crab-picking business. You need a lot of big crabs to survive in the jumbo lump crab meat business. And the only way to get big crabs affordably in Texas is to own your boats. Ther's one crab-picking plant in Port Arthur and several more in Louisiana and Alabama, but for the most part, Gulf Coast picking houses couldn't compete, so they went out of business.
In my seafood salad story The Strange Case of the Disappearing Gulf Crab, I bemoaned the fact that nearly all the lump crabmeat in Houston seafood restaurants is now imported—while in fact, Texas is still producing plenty of crab.
But I reported that the Chesapeake Bay crab harvest was 600,000 pounds and the Texas harvest was around 3 million pounds. While both of those numbers are accurate, their comparison is not. The Texas figure was for live crab. The Chesapeake Bay actually harvested somewhere around 80 million pounds of live crab—and 600,000 pounds of lump crabmeat. My apologies for any confusion, and thanks to seafood man P.J. Stoops for pointing out the mistake and Steven Vilnit at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources for helping me sort the numbers out.
Here's another statistic from Vilnit: while the Chesapeake Bay produces the aforementioned 600,000 pounds of lump crabmeat annually, the United States imports some 40 million pounds of lump crabmeat a year.