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Deciding among the crab offerings at the supermarket can be daunting. Jumbo lump, backfin or claw? Chesapeake, Gulf or Indonesian?
Competition is tough when it comes to the packaged blue crab meat many associate with the Chesapeake Bay but which often comes from the Gulf of Mexico, Venezuela and the Far East. That's one reason Maryland fisheries officials hope to set their catch apart by touting the state's sustainable fishing methods.
Maryland is in the early stages of seeking Marine Stewardship Council certification for its blue crab harvest, which one chef predicted would be "huge" in helping sales. The state is seeking the certification as more people become concerned about where their food comes from and how its production affects the environment.
The certification looks at the impact of harvesting on the environment and other species, whether fisheries managers have the ability to monitor the species and whether the harvest is being tracked adequately. Louisiana recently won certification for its crab harvest, and Maryland also has applied for its striped bass fishery.
"Restaurants are really looking for something like that. There are a lot of restaurants that focus on sustainability issues and they really haven't had a blue crab to be able to embrace," said Steve Vilnit, seafood marketing specialist for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources.
Crabs are the Chesapeake Bay's biggest moneymaker, bringing in $52 million in Maryland in 2009, and many chefs believe they are among the world's best. The lower salinity of the upper Chesapeake Bay makes the meat sweeter and more tender, and the crabs hibernate over the winter, storing fat that makes them taste richer than nonhibernating crabs from farther south, said Chad Wells, executive chef at Alewife in Baltimore.
But competition is tough and with prices topping $20 a pound for Maryland's picked crab meat, many buyers look elsewhere for cheaper alternatives. MSC certification would give consumers another reason to buy Maryland crab, and Wells said he thought it would be "huge" in getting it into more supply chains.
David Pilat, global seafood buyer for Whole Foods Market Inc., said a survey commissioned by the natural and organic grocery chain found nearly 60 percent of its shoppers consider sustainability an important part of their purchasing decision, and it has seen MSC-certified seafood sales grow.
Jason Ruth, a seafood buyer for Harris Seafood in Grasonville, which provides oysters and crabs to supermarkets nationwide, said he also has seen a shift toward sustainability over the past three or four years.
"A lot of the food service industry -- your chain food stores like Whole Foods, Wegman's, Safeway -- are all leaning toward that right now," Ruth said. "They only want to deal with MSC-certified fisheries."
Maryland's crab population is one of the most well-studied in the world, and officials believe that and the state's strict harvest management will help in certification efforts. While the Chesapeake's crab population was in decline, it has bounced back since severe harvest restrictions were instituted in 2008. The changes included cutting the harvest by a third, shortening the season and protecting hibernating female crabs.
Fisheries that have received MSC certification range from Alaskan Pollock to Oregon's Dungeness crab and a lobster fishery on Mexico's Baja peninsula, said Kerry Coughlin, MSC's regional director for the Americas.
About 300 fisheries are in the program, with more than 130 certified. In addition to certifying fisheries, the group also certifies supply chains so seafood can be traced from boat to shelf.
In a very crowded marketplace, where more than 80 percent of the seafood sold in the United States is imported, Coughlin said certification can help consumers make decisions that make a difference.
"It's not so much advocacy as market forces, and consumers can take part in that," Coughlin said. "They're helping to motivate fisheries, and that's what we are seeing on the fisheries side -- the fisheries are motivated."
Marine Stewardship Council: http://www.msc.org
Maryland Department of Natural Resources: http://www.dnr.state.md.us
Whole Foods Market Inc.: http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com
Harris Seafood: http://www.harriscrabhouse.com