Sunday, November 20, 2011

Blue Crab

Scientific name: Callinectes sapidus

Blue crabs are a staple of the Chesapeake Bay. Their characteristic blue coloration and pointy shells make them easy to spot. Since I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay, I thought the blue crab was a perfect ocean critter to help make my blogging debut.

That blue pigment breaks down if you cook the crabs, leaving the hardier red pigments. Chesapeake Crab Cakes, Crab Dip, and more are regular menu items on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and beyond. My personal favorite way to eat blue crabs is steamed with Old Bay seasoning with butter and a cold beer. The blue crab fishery is an important one for the local economy. I got a taste of what it was like to work on the water a few years ago.

During a few summers home from college I worked at the Horn Point Laboratory out of the University of Maryland. I worked on projects in the Aquaculture and Restoration Ecology Program. One day, I had the opportunity to go crabbing to collect some blue crabs for an upcoming experiment. We got up super early in the morning and were on the water before sunrise.

As the sun came up, we loaded the line of hooks with bull lips (yes, facial tissue from a bull, it was gross but part of the job) and let the line into the water.  As we started to pull up the line through the equipment the blue crabs started to drop into the basket. We separated out the sea nettles (jellyfish), measured the crabs to make sure they were legal size, and determined their gender.

One of the first things I remember learning about blue crabs was how to tell the difference between a male and a female. Males have a pointy abdomen section on the bottom of their shells, shaped a bit like the Washington Monument and females have a broader section called an apron. The shells of blue crabs and other crustaceans are called exoskeletons. You can also spot the females by looking for their “painted fingernails,” or the bright red tips of their claws.

We had to measure how long each crab was from tip to tip of their shells to make sure they were within the legal limit. Local governments have to set regulations so that the blue crab population can sustain itself. By only taking the larger adult crabs, the younger ones are able to grow up and reproduce to replenish the system. You also can’t take any females with eggs so they have a chance to hatch and become part of the marine environment.

Before lunch we had several bushel baskets of blue crabs ready to load into the van. I developed a new respect for the men and women who make their livings on the water that day. It was great experience and a great way to reconnect to the Chesapeake Bay that I grew up loving.

Learn more about blue crabs at

Learn more about Horn Point Lab at  

Photos by Sara MacSorley


  1. I love the translation of their scientific name: savory beautiful swimmer.

    They are becoming more common Narragansett Bay. Last summer the kids and I caught many juvenile blues along the shore using a small seine net.

  2. I think its a great name too, especially since I've grown to appreciate the "savory" part!

    I remember catching one, only one, in a seine during my undergraduate marine biology class at the University of Rhode Island.