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Blue Crabs

EASTERN SHORE
RESEARCH

Blue Crabs


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"So, why do you know so much about crabs?"  One of us was recently asked by a new acquaintance while dining on soft crabs and talking about the blue crab life cycle at a restaurant in Baltimore.

"It's a long story, but the short version is that I'm an anthropologist from the University of Maryland and we work a lot with watermen on Maryland's lower eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay."

The following article, by Amanda Ritchie and Michael Paolisso, University of Maryland, was published in the September 2002 issue of the Maryland Watermen's Gazette.  

To learn more about their work on the Chesapeake Bay, please contact Amanda Ritchie (tel: (301)405-2848, email: aritchie@anth.umd.edu) or Michael Paolisso (tel: (301)405-1433, email: mpaolisso@anth.umd.edu). Click on the crab to learn more about the Chesapeake Bay Program.

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In the summer of 1998, our work on the Bay began as a study of the social and cultural dimensions of Pfiesteria piscicida, which captured significant media and scientific attention in the summer of 1997.  We initiated the project because we felt that studying the cultural knowledge and values underlying peoples' responses to Pfiesteria was key to understanding the widespread "hysteria over Pfiesteria."  We also believed that such a study could help improve dialogue on scientific and policy issues among the Bay's environmental stakeholder groups.  Eventually, our work broadened to examine different groups' knowledge and values regarding the environment and pollution of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay.  Our work has involved watermen, natural resource managers, policymakers, farmers, non-governmental conservationists, and scientists who live, work and/or conduct research in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  To date, most of our fieldwork has been conducted on Maryland's Lower Eastern Shore.

As anthropologists, there are some key concepts and techniques that we use to do our work.  Two very important and related concepts are cultural relativism and holism.  Anthropologists believe that different cultures and lifestyles can only be understood in relation to their own respective values and behaviors.  Therefore, the values and behaviors of one group cannot be judged according to the those of another group this is cultural relativism.   Anthropologists also look at people and culture holistically, meaning we view human behavior within the big picture and examine how parts of a culture are connected.

Here's an example of how these concepts are applied to our work on the Chesapeake Bay.  In order to better understand people's knowledge of the environment and pollution, we need to consider questions like: what knowledge and values do different groups have regarding the environment and pollution?  How is that knowledge shaped by their involvement in social institutions like universities, churches, environmental organizations?  What kinds of traditions and practices are influenced by and influence their knowledge and behaviors?  We look at the answers to these questions for each group and how they compare without judging whether a group is "better" or "worse," "right" or "wrong" the goal is to better understand each culture's values, practices and knowledge by their own standards, and not judge them based on our own or any other culture's standards.  Of course, this is usually easier said than done!

Anthropologists use certain techniques to answer questions.  Fieldwork is the core technique of anthropology.  It can take many forms, but fieldwork generally involves the anthropologist observing and interacting with people where they live and work on a regular basis for an extended period of time.  For us, fieldwork involves helping a waterman cull crabs on his work boat, attending public hearings, interviewing environmentalists, conducting surveys, visiting with farmers and their families in their homes.  It can take a lot of time and effort to understand aspects of another culture from an insider's perspective.  But the benefits of doing fieldwork, both professional and personal, make it all worthwhile.

The newest phase of our work on the Bay is a study of women's roles in the peeler and soft crab industry (discussed in detail in this month's Gazette), and a project to conduct collaborative learning workshops involving Maryland watermen, natural resource managers and scientists this Fall and Winter.  We are conducting these workshops in response to the current controversy over the ecological and economic status of the blue crab fishery.  Yield and population indicators have led marine scientists and natural resource managers to believe that the blue crab population is at dangerously low levels and that reductions in commercial harvesting is key to protecting the blue crab.  Watermen agree that the blue crab fishery is under pressure and see a role for science and regulations in helping to sustain the fishery and their livelihoods, but they question the scientific knowledge and are critical of the governmental regulations.  Our goal is to act as a neutral third party and use the workshops as catalysts for mutual learning and constructive dialogue that goes deeper than common discussions about specific issues, and exposes new insights about underlying issues to improve relations between stakeholders.

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