Excerpts by Henry Lane Hull

With respect to the recent news as reported by CNN, one might say “One person’s crisis is another person’s delicacy.” The crisis emanates from the Adriatic and Mediterranean coasts of Italy, and the subject is the overwhelming prevalence of Chesapeake Bay blue crabs in the waters off the Italian coastline.

Apparently, tankers, freighters and cruise ships have been discharging bilge water off the coast of Italy in recent years. The water has contained small blue crabs that are growing voraciously and as adults are devouring local clams and mussels. The Italian eel population is being affected as well, with fishermen reporting pulling up eels with severe damage to their torsos, all the result of the crab invasion.

The Italian government is allotting moneys to relieve the plight of the fishermen whose livelihood is in jeopardy. On the market, crabmeat in Italy is selling for about $6 per pound.  Some restauranteurs are seizing the moment and offering various pasta sauces with crabmeat over spaghetti. Sounds yummy! Others are holding fast and refusing to serve crab on their menus.

The price of traditional Italian seafood cuisine has risen in proportion to the scarcity of the products. Fishermen have complained that when they harvest clams and mussels, they find only the shells with the meat having served as a tasty treat for the burgeoning crab population.

The water that the ships have been discharging clearly has come from the Chesapeake Bay, the home of the blue crab. The fertilized eggs of the blue crab are laid in Hampton Roads and then migrate their way up the bay and its tributaries. They begin at the lower reaches of the bay, passing through Virginia and on into Maryland. 

A female crab can lay well over a million eggs with the mortality rate being extremely high, as the baby crabs are preyed upon by both fish and the adults by fishermen. In their northbound journey by the time they reach Maryland waters, most of the migrants are males. In the Adriatic and Mediterranean seas the migratory process is less clear, but it should be traceable as the problem continues to mount.

The warmer seawater off the Italian coast has been beneficial to the foreign crabs, which have been reproducing exponentially. Apparently facing no natural predators in Italian waters, the crabs have enjoyed a free rein, decimating the regional seafood population. Whereas we speak of the need to avoid overfishing crabs, in Italy the push is to overfish crabs as much as possible.

International maritime commerce has brought about a similar problem in our own waters with the rapid increase of Asian oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. Across the span of the last five decades, different varieties of Asian oysters have been thriving in Virginia waters, clearly the result of bilge water having been discharged in Hampton Roads and on up to Baltimore. 

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission, on which I had the privilege of serving for a term, has monitored the situation closely, and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science has provided the commission with the basic science necessary to take steps to control the spread as far as possible, which is virtually a hopeless task.

Invasive species, whether they be aquatic or agricultural, disrupt Mother Nature’s plan for harmonious living conditions for all creatures. The blue crab in Italian waters and the Asian oysters in the Chesapeake Bay are two sides of the same coin. As the world shrinks and gets more tightly compacted, other such incidences will occur. 

The survival of local species is important for harmonious growth and development.  If one questions the need to preserve native marine and agricultural species, one need only reflect on the last century of America combatting the Japanese beetle to realize how much damage invasive species can do. Our native blue crab delicacy is causing a crisis for the Italian seafood economy, which likely will never be the same again.