The blue crab may be the most well known species of the Chesapeake Bay, and a translation of the scientific name helps to reveal why. Callinectes is Greek for beautiful swimmer, and sapidus translates to delicious or savory in Latin.
Blue crabs possess a pair of special paddle shaped swimming legs at the rear of their bodies. Whether you are just below the falls of the James in Richmond or standing on a dock in Norfolk, it is captivating to see these creatures flutter through the water column. You will most often find them on the river bottom however, disguised among the submerged grass beds that provide important habitat for a multitude of other species.
The culinary virtues of the blue crab are perhaps their most esteemed quality. Not only are they tasty, but they represent the most valuable fishery in the Chesapeake Bay estuary. In 2014, Chesapeake blue crab landings were valued at more than $80 million according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. The price these crabs fetch on their way to dinner tables has in turn shaped a livelihood and culture for watermen who ply the waters commercially.
Blue crabs play an essential ecological role as both predators and prey for many species. Their presence is important to the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay, but their numbers have suffered over the years. Submerged grass beds, which are the favorite habitat of blue crabs, experienced a steep decline decades ago due to pollution and human development. But thanks to investments made to restore water quality in the James River and across the Chesapeake Bay region these vital grass beds have started to come back. With continued restoration of submerged grass beds and sustainable management of the commercial harvest, we can set a path to preserve this iconic species into the future.
Forty years ago, William Warner published his Pulitzer Prize winning non-fiction book “Beautiful Swimmers,” which describes in flowing detail the natural history of blue crabs and the unique connection they have to local culture in the Chesapeake Bay. James River Association is also celebrating a 40th anniversary this year and you are invited to commemorate the occasion with a viewing of the film Beautiful Swimmers Revisted at our October 6 Annual Meeting in Williamsburg. Based on the 1976 book this documentary focuses on the changes over the past 40 years in the Chesapeake Bay, its blue crab population and the fisheries that revolve around them.