blue crabs net alicia porter CC by 2.0
Image Credit: Alicia Porter (CC BY 2.0)

It’s the sizzling sound of arthropod that bring the crowd around. Finally, after all the work; after all the effort of catching and cleaning; the crab cakes are lowered into a frothing sea of molten butter. One by one, the gathered lumps of blue crab meat descend and undergo their delicious metamorphosis.

I may have only lived here for a year, but already I know the importance of the Chesapeake Blue Crab. Callinectes sapidus; Latin for savory, beautiful swimmers. There’s a picture of one on my driver’s license; both front and back.  They’re on our license plates. Pictures of them pop up everywhere across the state from folk art to government documents. To those in Maryland, the blue crab is a symbol: of history, of heritage, of identity, and of a damn good meal. Blue crabs represent the Chesapeake Bay. The Bay, in turn, represents who we were, who we are, and who we hope to be in the future.

The Chesapeake is the largest estuary in the United States. It is also the most polluted. Given the cultural, economic, and symbolic importance of the Bay to Maryland, it’s preservation and clean-up are extremely important here. The blue crab, closely associated with and dependent on the Chesapeake, make an exceedingly good rallying point for citizens determined to preserve this water.

There’s a term for this type of highly symbolic species. Conservationists refer to them as charismatic megafauna. You typically see the term applying to large mammals. Giant pandas, humpback whales, grey wolves, and cheetahs are good examples. Often the push to preserve these species is tied to a larger conservation effort. The polar bear is a particularly good example of this. Everything from limiting climate change to banning arctic oil drilling has used the polar bear as a symbol for general conservation of the arctic region. After all, it’s difficult to get emotionally charged about shrinking ice sheets. But when you learn that polar bears are dying, you’re much more likely to do something.

The blue crab holds that high level of symbolism for Marylanders in the fight to clean up the Chesapeake. One hint of something that endangers blue crab stocks and people demand the issue be combated. But there’s a critical problem. The watershed that feeds the Chesapeake Bay comes from six states and the District of Colombia, but the Bay itself only has shoreline in Maryland and Virginia. If you live in Pennsylvania or New York, the Bay and its crabs likely don’t hold much cultural importance for you. The farms growing crops and livestock that line streams leading to the Chesapeake, however, probably do. So when these communities are confronted and told to stop causing a pollution problem for a body of water they don’t have a cultural connection to, it tends to be viewed as a demand to diminish their community so another can benefit. Unsurprisingly, people get defensive if they feel this is the suggestion.

Whether or not the clean-up of the Chesapeake Bay seems imperative to you largely revolves around how you see the issue culturally. Or, to put it in sociological terms, how you frame the issue. A cognitive frame is an underlying and near unconscious set of concepts that we all use when forming ideas about the world around us. If, for instance, your family has lived for 8 generations in a small town economically dependent on crab, oyster, and fish harvests from the Chesapeake, you’re likely to frame Bay restoration as very important. It will be framed as critical; mandatory. But, if you’re a hog farmer in New York state for who sees pollution control measures as financially onerous and has never known anyone living near that downstream water, the importance of Bay health will likely fall outside of your frame of importance. It’s not that you don’t care, per se, but more that you don’t have any cultural incentive to place a clean Chesapeake Bay above the financial engine of your own family.

So it should be no surprise that Maryland’s interstate effort to enforce pollution controls has been met with resistance. The American Farm Bureau Federation attempted to sue the EPA when they set in place a “Total Maximum Daily Load” of pollution from fertilizer, animal waste, and wastewater that was allowed to wash down stream into the Chesapeake. When the supreme court declined to even hear the case, it was immediately hailed as a victory by Maryland and a grave misstep by the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. Interestingly, the Maryland Farm Bureau stayed pretty quiet on the matter. As of last year, Maryland and Virginia, the states with coastline on the Bay, are on track to meet their pollution reduction requirements. Pennsylvania and New York are lagging behind pace.

These types of framing conflicts are, unfortunately, all too common in environmental issues. They are also a source of challenge for environmental professionals who are focused on larger regional, national, or even global issues. For instance, water quality advocates in Pennsylvania are often stuck between their vision of the importance of clean water generally and the economic and cultural pressures of their own agricultural communities. Those advocating for a decrease in plastic consumption are put in a similar situation living in communities that are dependent on petrochemical and plastic production. Efforts to combat climate change are constantly hampered by framing battles; from the need to reduce production of fossil fuels to the push away from a hyper consumerist culture. To tackle any of these critical challenges requires the tedious process of navigating ever shifting cultural frames. These are challenges that all of us who care about critical environmental issues must grapple with.

But as we gather around the crab cakes sizzling in the pan, these worries fade from our minds. One by one we turn the cakes over to reveal a much desired browned surface. Once cooled and sampled, we each agreed in turn that they were good and the exhausting effort put into the long day had indeed been worth it. We had reaffirmed our commitment to our collective culture and succeeded in the delicious production of a regional favorite. From start to finish, we had proven to each other that we belonged. Whether or not we could do this again next week or next year or next generation would continue to be a source of worry. But for now, with freshly devoured crab cake missing from our plates, we were happy.


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