ST. MICHAELS — The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum hosted the third and final installment of its three-part series “State of the Crab: Community Conversations,” Sunday, Sept. 28. The panel discussed the challenges that the crab industry is facing.
The four panelists were Steve Vilnit, director of fisheries marketing at the Department of Natural Resources, watermen Russell Dize and Rachel Dean and packing house owner Joe Spurry. Michael Paolisso, a University of Maryland anthropology professor, served as moderator.
Along with poor water quality, state regulations on harvest and sustainability plans, the panelists spoke about how globalization is affecting the seafood industry.
“Sustainability has been the buzzword for the past decade,” Vilnit said. “I’m trying to get away from sustainability. It means absolutely nothing unless you know exactly where it comes from. All it means is that you are trusting your supplier to tell you that it’s coming from a sustainable source.”
Before joining the DNR, Vilnit was a wholesaler who worked with restaurants in the Chesapeake Bay region. He noticed very few restaurants were selling Maryland crab meat. They were instead using crab meat from China, Indonesia, Venezuela and other countries, and marketing their crab dishes as Maryland-style products.
According to Vilnit, 2 to 5 percent of the crab meat sold in the region is from a local source. “So when I came over to work for the state I wanted to address this issue,” Vilnit said.
He worked with the DNR to create the True Blue Maryland Crab Meat program. By visiting the program’s website, consumers can find local restaurants, retailers and even schools that are serving local crab.
Another part of the program focuses on working with chefs to educate them on local seafood. Vilnit said blue swimmer crabs are often used instead of the blue crab.
Vilnit focuses on chefs because, more often than not, people are more likely to try new products in a restaurant than making it themselves at home. He said if people are exposed to quality meat at restaurants, then they will buy local crab meat at the grocery store as well.
Retail stores are required to label food with its origins, but restaurants are not.
“We try to get (chefs) to understand that this isn’t just about a price on a price list. This is an industry, this is a history and industry that we need to keep alive,” Vilnit said.
Dean is a first generation waterman who also owns a wholesale seafood business in Lusby, near the mouth of the Patuxent River.
She, along with the other panelists, stressed the importance of educating the public on watermen and the local seafood industry. She gives heritage tours and helps the watermen’s association facilitate programs like Waterman’s Appreciation Day at the maritime museum.
“For too long we’ve been fighting against the stereotype of the waterman harvesting everything until it’s gone,” Dean said.
“I think that a lot of visitors would be very disappointed if they knew that they were not getting a true Maryland seafood experience when they’re out at a restaurant,” said Paolisso, who has written and co-authored numerous works on the Chesapeake Bay region.
“I think that when you go into a restaurant and if you look down at the menu and they start putting Maryland insignia on there saying it’s Maryland crab meat, I think, means a lot,” Dize said. “Give people a choice.”
“The State of the Blue Crab,” was part of an annual series of discussions and programs called “Community Conversations” hosted by the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
For more information on True Blue Maryland Crabmeat visit seafood.mary land.gov/true-blue-mary land-crab-meat.