Like dutiful children all over the country, I spent time with my mother yesterday. I brought her a bouquet from my the petal explosions in my flowerbeds, and spent some quality time with the woman who gave me life, along with a penchant for irreverence, as the fifth-generation link in my Chesapeake family. Mothers are important, and it’s always good to stop and consider your gratitude to the woman who bore and raised you.
We also owe a debt of gratitude to a different Chesapeake mother, on Mother’s Day; the source of our summer picnics, our satiation from a pile of the Bay’s finest, a medium for one of the most deliciously fiery spices known to man. The Chesapeake sponge crab.
Each of these expectant females is laden with a whopping 750,000 to 8 million eggs. They’re a crustacean carrying the equivalent of a year’s population boom in China. It’s pretty wild stuff, and it gives you a sense of how big an impact the moratorium on female harvests from a few years ago had. As any Museum-visiting student will tell you, we need the mommies if we want the babies. And that moratorium on catching sponge crabs is especially important when the babies happen to be so delicious, and drive so much of our summertime economy here in the Chesapeake.
The survival of sponge crabs, and the success of their great migration at the end of the summer from the mudflats of our rivers to the salty confluence of the Bay and ocean’s meeting point, is pivotal to our summertime picnic table’s success. As each inseminated female makes her way to the briny mouth of the Chesapeake, she runs a gauntlet of nets, pots, traps, and the occasional dead zone, sidling ever closer to her winter hibernation grounds. Once she succeeds, she’ll nestle in the saline sands of the Bay’s terminal point, waiting for the warmer waters of spring as her eggs develop from a bright orange to black. Watermen in Virginia used to harvest females at this point, as they lay in expectant stasis in the wintertime brackish depth. They would use dredges to unearth the females from their fluffy mud comforters, and would sell the sponge crabs, resplendent with eggs, to restaurants that simmered them in a decadent she-crab soup.
One of our historic vessels here at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, Old Point, was part of that wintertime fleet that went out searching for the lower Bay’s hibernating matrons. As the crab population dropped, so too did log-built crab dredges like her, as the sponge crab catch was limited and ultimately discontinued for good. Nowadays, Old Point spends her time docked alongside our small boat shed, as her would-be catch winkles away along the bottom unscathed. And that sponge crab crab limit, while putting boats like Old Point out of business, has exponentially increased the crab populations in the Bay.
So, today, the day after Mother’s Day, send a little prayer of thanks to some of the Bay’s most prodigiously-producing mothers. Because they made it from the mouth of the Bay to the river and back, carrying a glistening burden of apricot-colored life, you can look forward to bushels bursting at the sides this summer with the tasty little children she bore at the Bay’s beginning.