Crab Processors Get High Tech
A line of women, most in the U.S. on guest worker visas, pick crabs at the J. M. Clayton Seafood Company in Cambridge, Maryland. These crabs — just recently steamed — represent only a portion of yesterday's harvest. The larger crabs, which bring a higher return sold live for the steamed hard crab market, have already gone to seafood markets and restaurants throughout the region. Credit: Daniel Strain

THE CRAB PICKERS WORKING TODAY aren't just fast — they're so fast their hands blur. Dozens of them, mostly young, Hispanic women, crowd around the cafeteria-style tables lining the picking floor at Maryland's J.M. Clayton Company in Cambridge. This morning, they're working their way through overflowing mounds of cooked crabs. With curving strokes, the women slice off the crabs' legs, then backs, finally plucking out two, glistening pieces of lump meat from the now-open body cavities. For the best pickers, this gutting takes mere seconds.

Jack Brooks watches over the show, which looks feverish but is nearly silent except for the clinking of shells. "Here's where we pick crabs as we've done for 100 years — one at a time, with a knife," he announces. Brooks, who runs J.M. Clayton with his two brothers, Bill and Joe, and his son Clay, admits that his company is a mix of new and old. Its picking line still looks much like it did when his own great-grandfather, the original J.M. Clayton, opened his first seafood processing plant in 1890. But Brooks and his family have also embraced modern tools. Just recently, the company installed its first flash freezer, a device that makes it easier for the company to sell crab meat during the usually slow off-season, when freshly harvested crabs aren't available. "It enables us to keep buying and selling crabs" late into the fall, he says. "It's better for the fishermen, it's better for us, and it's better for our customers."

To get this new technique up and running, Brooks and his colleagues collaborated with Tom Rippen, a seafood technology specialist with Maryland Sea Grant Extension who is based at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore in Princess Anne. Rippen and his fellow researchers haven't stopped at refrigeration: they're also working to develop other new technologies and best practices, including robotic pickers, to keep Maryland businesses competitive in a tough, shrinking industry.

Rippen, a Michigan native who's worked with seafood processors for more than 30 years, is the go-to guy for the Chesapeake crab industry. This year, for instance, a Maryland company wanted help packaging and selling its famed crab soup to grocery stores. Today, that product is dished directly out of a small seafood market in Princess Anne. Rippen took packages of the soup to his lab where he slowly heated them in a large hot water bath that serves as a pasteurizer. The trick was to find the right amount of heat, just enough so that the seafood would be safe to store but not enough to tarnish the flavor. That company, called Beach to Bay Seafood, now plans to open a local plant dedicated to making crab soup, creating around 25 jobs in the process.

Small victories like this aside, Rippen notes that it's been a tough era for the Maryland crab industry. Many local businesses couldn't compete with the flood of cheap, imported crab meat that began streaming into the United States in the late-1980s. Of more than 50 crab-processing plants operating then, only about 25 survive today. The rest closed their doors.

U.S. Crab Meat Imports from Asia 2000-2011
Keep it fresh. Tom Rippen and several Maryland crab processors discuss why a relatively new technique for preserving crab meat — called flash freezing — might be a boon for this old industry. View video . . .

The survivors quickly learned how to market their seafood to discriminating diners wanting to "buy local, buy fresh," Rippen adds. Marylanders, after all, take their seafood seriously (see Maryland Crab Coming to a Restaurant Near You) Many local crab connoisseurs can even identify, solely by taste, the exact river where their crab was caught. Rippen's challenge is to connect such seafood aficionados to companies like J.M. Clayton. That's where flash freezing enters the picture.

Rippen explains that traditional freezing methods wreak havoc on succulent crab meat. That's because the slow rate of cooling imparted by a conventional freezer — like the ones kept in most homes and businesses — causes the proteins in crab muscle to collapse. That, in turn, erodes their ability to hold in the meat's most tasty juices. After thawing, that fluid gushes out, taking flavor with it and turning fluffy jumbo lump crab into what Rippen calls a "bland, paper spit wad."

New Tools For the Industry

Flash freezers, on the other hand, don't suffer from the same flaws. Instead they cool so quickly — dropping down to -140 degrees Fahrenheit and even chillier with the aid of super-cold gusts of nitrogen gas — that the crab meat's proteins escape unharmed. In 2009, Rippen launched a pilot project to determine whether such freezers were right for the crab industry. For help, he turned to an engineer named Andrew Tolley.

Like Brooks, Tolley has crabs in his blood. His family had worked in the seafood processing industry since the 1920s and even owned their own plants in Toddville, Maryland. But they, like so many businesses at the time, wound up closing for good in the early 2000s following the imported crab boom. Out of the business, Tolley learned the basics of how manufacturing is done working for a local metal fabricator and eventually landed a position as a quality manager at a Maryland factory that made hospital beds.

Tolley says that losing the family business was hard, but he's still hoping to help keep alive the traditions surrounding Maryland seafood. "I did not want to get out,"he says. "I am still interested in the people who live around here and who work on the water."

Tolley now works for a company that packages soup and other foodstuffs. He also takes on freelance projects. Teaming up with Rippen, he consulted with a freezer manufacturer to find the best design for local seafood processors. Flash freezing technology isn't new. But it hadn't yet been employed in the crab industry on a wide scale. So the team conducted some simple tests to see how local processors could best put these systems to use. How long should it take to cool a plastic carton full of crab meat, for instance, and how should it be thawed? Based on the group's recommendations, three of the Chesapeake's dwindling number of crab processors wound up installing their own flash freezers.

Back at J.M. Clayton, Jack Brooks opens his company's flash freezer. Wearing shorts and a white company T-shirt, he can easily fit inside this stainless steel contraption. Come the fall, Brooks's employees will begin freezing two to four batches of picked crab, each composing hundreds of pounds of meat, every day. That meat will be a nice sales cushion for the long winter months when crabs hibernate and the local harvest season is closed. And, once thawed, the flash frozen crab tastes virtually fresh, too, he adds.

Brooks notes that it's advancements like these that have helped to keep his business going even as other companies went under. "We lost a lot of our friends," he says. "[But] that's one thing the imports did do for us. ...They made us improve our quality, and that's a good thing."

New freezers may be just the beginning, too. Andrew Tolley says he'd like to turn crab picking — the intensive slicing and plucking going on at J.M. Clayton — into an automated process. Most processors in Maryland, he explains, depend on foreign labor here on special visas to pick their crabs. And those visas can be very hard to come by, leaving some companies without an adequate workforce for entire seasons.

The Maryland crab industry‚Äôs main competition is imported crabs from Asia, but fisheries there have shown signs of decline.  more . . .

Tolley says it's possible to design robots that could size up individual crabs, then saw off their hard shells just like a human picker would. Questions remain, however, about whether local processors, which tend to be small, family operations, could afford such technology. Bill Sieling, executive director of the Annapolis-based Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, adds that "many of the companies take great pride that their product is hand-picked."

But, Sieling says, if those companies get the workers they need, they'll probably keep selling crab meat, much like they've done since J.M. Clayton opened his first plant more than a hundred years ago. "We're down to the hardcore...the real survivors," he says. "They're going to keep on doing what they can do for as long as they can."

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