That 'Maryland-style' crab? It's from Thailand
HOW CHESAPEAKE BAY'S ONCE-PROUD INDUSTRY BECAME OUTSOURCED AND OUTDONE
By Gady A. Epstein And Stephanie Desmon
THE BALTIMORE SUN
DONSAK, Thailand - By 9 a.m., the crab boats have already been coming and going from the pier for close to five hours, with migrant Burmese workers laboring to unload, sort, weigh and steam crabs that are destined for dinner plates on the other side of the world.
Presiding over this assembly line are Nantanee and Somsak Choeyklin, who remember when this crustacean that has made them rich was only junk and they were poor. The blue swimming crab, known in Thailand as "horse crab," mottled and bluish-green, was little more than subsistence food when their parents were fishermen.
"When I was young, horse crab was worthless," Nantanee Choeyklin says. "We'd trade the horse crab for coconuts or some other fruit." "Sometimes," her husband says, "we'd get it and just throw it back." But this sea creature turned out to be strikingly similar to a classic American delicacy, Maryland's blue crab. The bad fortunes of the slowly disappearing Chesapeake Bay variety -- its population in decline for more than 20 years, now holding steady near historic lows -- created an opening for this previously unappreciated species 9,000 miles away.
A Maryland crab institution, the Phillips restaurants family, found that opening, discovering treasure where others had not. Led by Steve Phillips, Phillips Foods has in the past 15 years turned a foreign blue crab into a nearly $300 million-a-year industry, just as the industry back home was struggling. In the same stroke, Phillips Foods upended the equation of supply and demand in small fishing villages across the region, crowning an unloved crab as king.
Ask the Choeyklins what they think of "horse crab" now, and Somsak Choeyklin raises up his arms -- his left wrist adorned by a diamond-encrusted gold Rolex that matches his wife's; his right wrist encircled by a solid-gold chain inscribed with a Superman-style S -- and declares triumphantly, "The horse crab is god!" Sitting comfortably in plastic chairs on the pier, the air calm but strong with the odor of crab, they are at the center of a changed world. Nantanee Choeyklin is now mayor of Donsak, she and Somsak are wealthy, and what was once a small-time operation has become one of the town's largest employers, buying and selling crab that ends up in the United States.
The machinery of globalization has done its work. Crabmeat has become outsourced and commoditized, transformed from a Chesapeake Bay specialty into a manufactured good.
A new breed of crab industrialists -- ambitious, opportunistic and well-capitalized -- has fueled and profited from this boom. These new entrepreneurs have left behind an old breed of crabbers and pickers, the men and women of the Chesapeake Bay, who can't compete.
The influx of this crabmeat has made it possible to find crab cakes in dive bars and white-tablecloth restaurants from Maine to New Mexico, except now the Chesapeake region's specialty is made mostly from Asian crab.
As with products such as T-shirts and toys, few consumers seem to notice or care that their food is no longer from the United States. "Maryland crab" is simply rebranded "Maryland-style crab," and casual diners might be hard-pressed to notice a difference in taste.
The upside is this: The American consumer has wider access to a cheaper product. It's possible because an overseas army of fishermen, dockworkers and crab pickers labors long hours at low wages, some of them happily so, but some of them not. Before crabmeat lands on an American dinner plate, dozens of workers have handled it, from pulling it out of the sea in its shell to putting it on a shelf in its can.
In Donsak, migrant workers indenture themselves to a life of long hours, little sleep and even less leisure for, perhaps, just enough money to make life better back home -- the seafood industry's version of factory towns. Local factory bosses such as the Choeyklins, and the U.S. companies they serve, reap the substantial profits to be made from mass production at low cost.
But as the people of the Chesapeake Bay learned, the boom can last only as long as the natural resource does. Before it becomes processed into an Asian factory product, Portunus pelagicus is a living thing, part of a delicate ecosystem that is increasingly vulnerable to the voracious appetites of globalization.
In the past decade, competition for crab has greatly increased as other companies have followed Phillips into Thailand's fishing villages. Amid rising prices and a declining harvest, Phillips all but pulled out of Thailand last year, looking to cheaper markets such as China and Vietnam to find the Asian blue crab it needs. The machine of globalization rolls on in its ceaseless search for more abundant, cheaper labor and resources.
Ten years ago, the domestic crabmeat industry made up 76 percent of the blue crab supply in the United States. By 2004, U.S. processors were just 30 percent of the market, and the surge in Asian imports made up most of the difference. The dominance of imports is expected to only increase.
The increase so far has been staggering enough. In 2000, the first year the National Marine Fisheries Service began keeping statistics on what is called swimming crab -- a category that comprises both the blue crab caught off parts of North and South America and the species caught in Southeast Asia -- more than 23 million pounds, worth $117 million, were imported into the United States.
In 2004, 35 million pounds were imported with a value of $205 million. Last year, more than 46 million pounds of crabmeat, worth nearly $300 million, entered the United States from abroad.
"We seem to be on the top end of the wave for crab cakes," said Art Nermoe, head of culinary research and development at Granite City Food & Brewery, a small Minnesota-based chain that serves a crab cake appetizer made with cheddar cheese. "Menu items go in cycles. Comfort food to avant-garde and back. Cyclically, things come and go. Seafood's hot."
Phillips' success has inspired competition, with at least five other companies in Thailand sending crabmeat to the United States.
At the 2005 International Seafood Show in Boston, Ron Ratkelis, who used to operate a crab plant in Louisiana but now works with an Asian seafood company, said he was taken aback by the number of different companies hawking crab -- 28 were listed in the program as blue crab sellers. "I almost wanted to call it the Boston Crabmeat Show," he said.
"I used to be able to keep track of the labels on two hands," he said. "Now someone will name a label, and I haven't heard of it." Crab consumption in the United States, meanwhile, has doubled in the past decade, according to the National Fisheries Institute, a trade association. Crabmeat has surpassed cod and clams as a favorite in the American diet. Shrimp is still No. 1, but crab is gaining.
Compared with the Chesapeake Bay, Southeast Asia's vast waters are home to a seemingly endless stock of crabs. But any one fishing spot that feeds the American appetite is in danger of drying up.
In 2001, the Choeyklins built a small crab hatchery at the pier, where breeding females are kept until they shed their fertilized eggs, an average of 500,000 each. The females are moved on to be steamed, but their eggs hatch and grow into tiny young crabs. Few will survive for long once they are released into the sea -- the crab's life cycle is less a cycle than a brutal winnowing -- and only some of those will grow large enough to become dinner like their mothers.
It is but one rudimentary effort to tilt the balance back in nature's favor. The industrialization of Thailand's blue swimming crab, only a decade old, may be threatening to destroy it.
"We noticed that the natural resource was declining, and we were trying to think of how to sustain it," Nantanee Choeyklin said. "There's a decline of 50 percent in the crab due to more people fishing, using longer nets, bigger traps."