Who Wants Crabs? Counting Blue Crabs on the Patuxent River

For a lot of us, crab feasts have always presented themselves as the social events of the summer. Bringing crabs to the table is a symbolic gesture as much as an epicurean offering, and being invited to a crab feast is an occasion which goes on the calendar. We're essentially saying we like you enough to share these giant pinching water spiders with you, and you're welcome. When we're having crabs, we like to let people know. No-one ever says "we're having a party, there'll be potato salad."

The social events which they are, every crab feast will certainly include at least two topics. How you pick and/or eat them is a given, especially if there's new friends at the picnic table (it's also a requirement to be outside, of course). In my opinion, as long as there's no meat left on the table, you can eat them with gloves on, use a fork and a knife, chopsticks, or a pair of tweezers for all I care. The little differences in how we pick and eat them are as much a part of the pastime as actually eating them (just no vinegar, please).

But the other topic that's sure to come up is the latest on numbers. How are they running? How big are they? How much is a dozen at the overpriced crab house we all know not to pay? And how much is a bushel from your top-secret backwater dealer?(please don't buy them from secret backwater dealers) I can't really speak to a time when crabs were considered abundant, but they were at least OK-ish in the 90's. At least decent enough that we'd put in the work to string a trot line in the summer, knowing it'd be worth the time and effort. Those little clam bags weren't around yet.

They're also a seasonal topic, so it's a sad sight when the first crabs of the season you see are dead ones. Occasional dead crabs floating on shore aren't a new occurrence, but they get your mind asking the age old question- "are crabs in trouble this year?". My three year old was the first to point them out at Benedict, truth be told. I was talking to the guys catching blue cats (probably more of them in the river than crabs at this point), comparing what they were fishing on the Patuxent (green worms, today) to what I was sinking on the Potomac (mud shad, last time I went).

I like to think that as my most frequent shore companion, my three year old spends more time outside than average. Unfortunately, like many preschoolers, she isn't a fan of critters with creature powers that include crawling (or pinching). In fact, there's an undeniable positive correlation between number of legs and ewwiness. On the other hand, she is a big fan of things she can poke with a stick. Needless to say, as an up and coming Marylander, her relationship with crabs is complex.

So after running up to me for the fourth time to tell me about another crab she poked in the water, I took notice. As we walked and counted, I was cautious not to get alarmed too quickly. I'm not a fisheries scientist, a waterman or a natural resources expert after all. "Maybe this is normal in the Patuxent?" I wondered to myself. But then again, is seeing 15 of any dead animal a "normal" thing?

The questions a three year old scientist asks are some of the most fun questions to answer, and they really run the gamut. "Why are they dead?" "When will they not be dead?"

"Are all crabs dead?"

I did my best to answer as we walked the shoreline, and eventually we found our way back to the car. She declared with certainty that we'd found all of them, so we could leave.

In one of those coincidental moments you lean into, later that after afternoon I read the results of the Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey (it had been published the day before). While I don't make any claims that the dead crabs I counted on the beach are equivalent to the bay-wide annual study, the numbers in the actual survey weren't good either.

Some years the numbers go up, and some years the numbers go down. But the trend line is certainly down, with some of the lowest numbers recorded since the survey began. The Patuxent is in poor health, plain and simple. Standing there looking at Chalk Point counting dead crabs, it'd be impossible to make the claim that things here seem fine.

As an indicator species on the bay, blue crabs are one of the creatures we pay closest attention too, and for good reason. Many of the creeks and inlets which crabs once tucked up into now offer up a fraction of the population they once held. Their dwindling numbers contribute to poor scores on the reports of many of the major tributaries, the Patuxent included. Crabs are one of those creatures we like to discuss as much as we like to share them, and we like to pick them clean. Or just poke them with sticks.