National Geographic : 1979 Feb
Blue crab: main cog in an "immense protein factory" Chesapeake Bay watermen annually harvest millions of pounds of the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus). The succulent crustaceans will be steamed, stuffed, deviled, shredded into salads, patted into crab cakes, and, in their soft-shell state, eaten whole. Baymen keep a sharp eye out for crabs about to shed their exoskeletons. A Tangier Island packer can spot a peeler by its paddlelike backfin: "Crab with a white edge to his paddle, he's got about a week to go. Pink rim, he'll shed in three days. When they gets red in the paddle, they'll shuck their shell in a day or so." A crab coming apart at the seams is a "buster"; he'll molt within hours. Clams and crabs abound. To hear a waterman talk, it's a good thing only two or three crabs survive from the million or more eggs a female carries. Otherwise, "the world'd be et up by crabs." Some 150 rivers, branches, creeks, and sloughs bearing names such as Crab Alley, Ape Hole, and Bullbegger flow into Chesapeake Bay. From the mouth of the Susquehanna to the Virginia capes, the bay washes more than five thousand miles of shoreline. Capt. John Smith observed in 1612, "the waters, Isles, and shoales, are full of safe harbours for ships of warre or marchandize, for boats of all sortes, for transportation k or fishing." Out of water, the soft-shell does not harden. The crab reaches restaurants packed alive in cold, wet sea grass. H. L. Mencken called the bay an "immense protein factory." But Indians may have said it first; Chesapeake-according to some sources-means "great shellfish bay," and it is that yet. Despite the overfishing that depleted the world's finest natural spawning beds, the bay still leads the country in oyster production. Skipjacks and bugeyes, British frigates and Baltimore clippers, submarines and aircraft carriers all have furrowed Chesapeake waters. Here ironclads Monitor and Merrimack revolutionized naval warfare. Today's freighters churn north toward Baltimore beneath twin spans linking Annapolis to the Eastern Shore, and working sailboats "drudge" the bottom for oysters just as they did a century ago. The Chesapeake Bay waterman is but one of the unique people readers meet in the wide-ranging pages of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.