A Decade of Maryland Crabbing History in Chronicling America

Over the past few months, you may have seen Historic Maryland Newspapers Project’s blog posts, with topics ranging anywhere from researching articles for Black History Month to holiday shopping to Brood X cicadas. With summer coming up, this month’s blog post will focus on the Maryland crabbing industry in the 1910s and 1920s.

Crabs seem almost simultaneous with the state of Maryland. Since the late 19th century, when the first batch of soft shell blue crabs were shipped out of Crisfield, MD, crabbing has been a critical component of the state’s economy and reputation. While soft shell crabs were once seen “as a luxury food,” the crabbing industry took off in the Chesapeake Bay and along the Eastern Shore of Maryland. With the introduction of hard crabs and adjustments for uses and sales for both types, the crabbing industry set itself in a firm place.

But as important as crabbing is to Maryland’s culture and economy, the industry has a long history of fluctuating supply, decreases in crabbers, and increased fears of the crabs’ extinction. According to Maryland Sea Grant College, there has been a continuous strain on the crabbing industry and many are still trying to find a healthy balance between protecting “the recent recovery of the Bay’s crab population while also securing opportunities for watermen to earn money for their harvests.” 

With almost 150 years of history in the state, strain on the Maryland crabbing industry is not a new phenomenon. In fact, since at least 1911, numerous efforts have been made to preserve the crabs in the Chesapeake Bay. 

At the start of 1911, the St. Mary’s Beacon reported concerns that crabs around the state of Maryland would become extinct within the next decade. At the time, a few ideas to preserve the crab population and the surrounding natural resources were proposed by the Engineer of the Shellfish Commission, Swepson Earle. One idea was to return all female crabs to the water, as this would provide the crabs time and resources to re-populate as the crabbing season went on. A second idea was to implement a tax on crabbers for every active crabbing boat; at the time, a similar tax was implemented in Virginia with some financial success.

Saint Mary’s beacon. [volume] (Leonard Town, Md.), 26 Jan. 1911. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82006687/1911-01-26/ed-1/seq-2/>

Although there were very few reports of the 1911 crabbing season in 1911, a year after the initial St. Mary’s Beacon article, the Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette reported an “unusually scarce supply of crabs” throughout the season; this raised even more concerns to preserve the crab population. As the state of Maryland supplied a significant “supply of crabs” throughout the United States – particularly from Crisfield, MD, located along the Chesapeake Bay – many local government officials considered it paramount to preserve the crab population while also preserving the crabbing industry. If the crabs were to go extinct, the state could lose at least $2 million in revenue. To prevent such a catastrophe, the National Shellfish Association introduced a Conservation Act to the Maryland State Legislature in February 1912. The act would propose that the crabbing industries in Maryland and Virginia work together to preserve the crab population, including costs to use boats and packing materials, as well as issuing crabbing licenses. Despite the outlined benefits, as we will discover later, the Act was struck down in the State Legislature.

Evening capital and Maryland gazette. (Annapolis, Md.), 28 June 1915. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88065726/1915-06-28/ed-1/seq-1/>

Almost a year and a half after the introduction of the Conservation Act, the Maryland crabbing industry saw a successful season in 1913. According to the Midland Journal, even though there were not as many crabs as there had been in previous years, they were priced well to make up for the discrepancy in supply. In Crisfield, for example, 3.8 million dozens of soft crabs and 10 million hard crabs were shipped out, bringing in just under $3 million to the town. When considering their revenue with oyster shipments as well, according to the article, these numbers made Crisfield the leading town for crab and oyster supply and shipment. With such numbers and rankings, it seemed like the fear of crabs going extinct was long in the past.

The next few crabbing seasons negated such thoughts; in the summers of 1914 and 1915, the crab supply started depleting even more. A couple of explanations for this turn emerged: Earle believed that without proper protective measures – like those proposed in the 1912 Conservation Act – crab supplies would continue to decrease until extinction. However, others blamed a specific crabbing practice; many thought that dedgring crabs during the winter negatively impacted the supply during the summer crabbing season. In response to the latter, in late July 1915, a new set of legislation was proposed to ban the winter dredging. Additionally, the legislation also proposed that young crabs – particularly those smaller than five inches in length – should be returned to the water if caught, as they would be the next generation to reproduce and replenish the crab supply for seasons to come. Over the next several months, more legislation – and pleas to work with Virginia – would be proposed. Finally, in May 1916, just as the next crabbing season was kicking off, the Crab Dredging law was approved by both Maryland and Virginia and prompted crab packers to gather to ensure its enforcement.The bill officially went into effect on June 1, 1916 along the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.

Throughout the next couple of crabbing seasons, the state-wide law seemed to positively impact the population, as the summers of 1917 reported ample crab populations. With a high demand and large crab size, the start of the 1918 crabbing season looked promising. Notably, the newspapers in the Annapolis-area reported a fluctuating season for crabbing: one week they would report that crabs were plentiful, and the next week, there would be concerns of depleting supply. This crabbing season also saw a decrease in the number of crabbers in the industry. During weeks where the crab supply was performing well, the Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette reported a lack of crabbers. 

The next two crabbing seasons continued to show mixed results. In the early 1919 crabbing season, The Evening Capital and Gazette reported a decent supply of soft-crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, but two months later, another article claimed that the supply was minimal. 

Evening capital and Maryland gazette. (Annapolis, Md.), 27 May 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88065726/1919-05-27/ed-1/seq-6/>

On the other hand, in August 1919, hard crabs were very much available to crabbers. To wrap up the decade, the summer of 1920 proved to be another tough crabbing season as business owners claimed that “there had never been known such a scarcity among both soft and hard crabs.” 

What is the purpose for writing about this decade of Maryland crabbing industry, especially in Chronicling America?  For one, using information provided today, we can conclude that crab depletion in the Chesapeake Bay is nothing new; in fact, it’s been going on for at least a century, if not more. Second, by analyzing newspaper articles over a period of time, we see the fluctuating reports of crab supply and experience different newspapers reporting similar events. Finally, these newspaper articles provide us with an opportunity to learn about the environmental and economic history of Maryland related to blue crabs. You never know what information you can find in Chronicling America!

Works Cited

Stagg, Cluney and Marguerite Whilden, “The history of Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab (Callinectes sapidus): fisheries and management,” Investigaciones Marinas 25 (1997): 94-5.

“Blue Crab Industry.” Maryland Sea Grant. https://www.mdsg.umd.edu/topics/blue-crabs/blue-crab-industry (accessed on February 6, 2020).

 “Fears Extinction of Crabs,” Saint Mary’s Beacon, January 26, 1911, 2, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82006687/1911-01-26/ed-1/seq-2/

 “To Protect State’s Crabs,” Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette, January 1, 1912, 1, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88065726/1912-01-01/ed-1/seq-1/

“Better Protection for Game and Fish,” The Midland Journal. January 5, 1912, 8, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn89060136/1912-01-05/ed-1/seq-8/

 “To Save the Crabs,” Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette, February 16, 1912, 1, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88065726/1912-02-16/ed-1/seq-1/

“Big Decrease in Supply of Crabs,” Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette, June 28, 1915, 1, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88065726/1915-06-28/ed-1/seq-1/

 “A Profitable Peninsula Industry, ” The Midland Journal, October 10, 1913, 1, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn89060136/1913-10-10/ed-1/seq-1/

“Big Decrease in Supply of Crabs,” Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette, June 28, 1915, 1, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88065726/1915-06-28/ed-1/seq-1/

 “Scarcity of Crabs,” Maryland Independent, July 17, 1914, 2, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85025407/1914-07-17/ed-1/seq-2/

 “Abuse of Crab Industry,” Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette, July 31, 1915, 3, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88065726/1915-07-31/ed-1/seq-3/

“To Enforce Crab Law Crab Packers Organize,” Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette, May 12, 1916, 3, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88065726/1916-05-12/ed-1/seq-3/

 “New Law Protects Crabs,” Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette, May 23, 1916, 4, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88065726/1916-05-23/ed-1/seq-4/

 “Soft Crabs and Fish in Great Demand Now,” Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette, June 4, 1918, 4, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88065726/1918-06-04/ed-1/seq-4/

 “Crab Industry in State Uncertain,” Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette, June 22, 1918, 1, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88065726/1918-06-22/ed-1/seq-1/

“No Crabs and Fish in the City Market for the First Time,” Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette, July 2, 1918, 1, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88065726/1918-07-02/ed-1/seq-1/

Better Crab Supply is Now in Prospect,” Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette, July 15, 1918, 4, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88065726/1918-07-15/ed-1/seq-4/

“Crabbers Scarce and Crabs High,” Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette, July 26, 1918, 5, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88065726/1918-07-26/ed-1/seq-5/

“The Crab Season Not a Success,” Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette, August 21, 1918, 1, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88065726/1918-08-21/ed-1/seq-1/

 “Soft Crabs Plentiful,” Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette, May 27, 1919, 6, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88065726/1919-05-27/ed-1/seq-6/

 “Watermen Dejected,” Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette, July 17, 1919, 1, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88065726/1919-07-17/ed-1/seq-1/

 “Gives Explanation of Scarcity of Soft Crabs this Season,” Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette, August 22, 1919, 3, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88065726/1919-08-22/ed-1/seq-3/

“Scarcity of Crabs Increases Daily,” Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette, July 20, 1920, 1, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88065726/1920-07-20/ed-1/seq-1/

This post is part of a monthly guest blog post series featuring the Historic Maryland Newspapers Project and Chronicling America. The Historic Maryland Newspapers Project at University of Maryland Libraries is the Maryland state awardee of the National Digital Newspaper Program. National Endowment for the Humanities and Library of Congress developed this program for state partners to digitize historic newspapers from across the country and make them freely accessible in the Chronicling America newspaper database.

__________________________________________________________________________

Sarah McKenna is a student assistant for the Historic Maryland Newspapers Project and a second year MLIS student in the College of Information Studies. Additionally, McKenna is a Graduate Assistant in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s