It's been suspected for years. The Maryland crabs on area menus might not come from the Chesapeake Bay.
"The majority of the crabs in Maryland are coming out of primarily North Carolina and Louisiana and Texas,” said Lee Carrion with Coveside Crabs. “And then they're brought into the state, sold to like crab houses or middle men that sell them steamed to take home, and they're labeled as Maryland."
Carrion is a member of the Maryland Seafood Marketing Advisory Commission. She says these less expensive, imposter crustaceans drive down the price for real Maryland blue crabs.
"That's not fair,” she said. “You're buying a superior product, and the crabber and his family should benefit from going out and harvesting Maryland crabs and being paid a fair market value for their incredible hard work, and then give the public the option to make the choice."
The seafood industry contributes about $600-million to the state's economy every year. In 2016, crabs had a dockside value of $56.6-million.
However, there's little regulatory enforcement to prevent mislabeled shellfish making its way to consumers.
"If you identify crabs as Maryland, it has to be from Maryland," said Mark Powell with Maryland’s Department of Agriculture.
He’s talking about a 2011 state labeling law that's on the books. For crabs, the legislation requires businesses to have a sign saying what state they were raised or landed if they're being touted as local.
"So the idea behind this law was let's create a requirement that if you're gonna call something local, you have to tell the consumer where it's from," Powell said.
The legislation applies to live crabs and steamed crabs. But not crab meat being used in dishes like crab cakes and crab soup. The state does not require restaurants to identify the source of the crab meat that ends up on your plate. So instead of Chesapeake blue crab, you could be eating a completely different species shipped in from as far away as Indonesia.
"If they want to pay a little bit more for Maryland crabs then gulf crabs then that should be their choice, right now they don't have the information to make a responsible, informed decision," said Carrion.
"Unfortunately, that is taking place inside the market,” Brian McComas, the owner of Ryleigh’s Oyster said. “Price dictates quite a bit of what is happening at the retail side of things, you know crab meat from the Chesapeake Bay is not inexpensive."
An investigation done back in 2015 confirmed those suspicions. Conservation group, Oceana, tested the DNA from 90 crab cakes advertised as local blue crab, and found more than a third were instead packed with cheaper, imported crab meat. The Baltimore area had some of the highest rates of mislabeling. Tricking customers into paying premium prices for non-local menu items.
A practice you won't see happening at Ryleigh's Oyster.
"All of our crab cakes are made in house, fresh daily,” said McComas. “And we pride ourselves on being one of the few that does serve Maryland crabmeat year round."
Promoting spots that reliably use Maryland crustaceans, like Ryleigh’s, is one of the reasons Maryland’s True Blue Program was started five years ago. Restaurants only get the True Blue certification if they can prove their crab meat comes from Maryland waters.
"Ask for it,” McComas said. “You might pay a little more, but you are helping your local economy and helping the crab industry itself to continue on, so just ask for it."
Nationwide, a Seafood Import Monitoring Program is set to take effect this January. The Federal effort will require importers to accurately report the type of seafood being shipped as well as how and where it was caught, including blue crab.
Here at home, you can report businesses violating the local advertising law for live and steamed crab online HERE.