Chesapeake Bay Seafood: What Is Safe to Eat?
How many meals of crab or rockfish is it safe to eat? What about oysters? Mercury, PCBs and pesticides limit the number of meals per month of certain types of Chesapeake Bay seafood. For instance, did you know that you can only eat 6 meals per month of crabs caught from Back, Middle or Patapsco Rivers or Baltimore Harbor? And you should never eat crab mustard from crabs caught in those areas? How about Rock Fish? Only 1 meal per month if the fish was over 28 inches and 3 meals per month if the fish is under 28 inches. Confused yet?
Evolve Medical has pulled together a helpful summary of the food safety for Annapolis’ favorite Chesapeake Bay seafood. How much can you eat, from where and how often. Much of the information summarized below can also be found at Maryland Fish Consumption Advisories which is run by the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs are actually safe to consume if caught anywhere outside of Back, Middle or Patapsco Rivers or the Baltimore Harbor. The main contaminant found in crabs is PCBs.
Q: Can you eat the mustard?
A: “Eat sparingly” — unless the crabs are from one of the more contaminated bodies of water above then do not eat at all.
Q: How much is a “meal”:
A: 9 crabs for adults and 4 crabs for children ages 0-6 years old
Q: How many meals per month is ok?
A: For crabs caught in Back, Middle or Patapsco Rivers or Baltimore Harbor only 6 meals per month and only 4 meals per month for kids. Outside of those areas, there are no restrictions.
Q: How do I know where the crabs were caught?
A: Your best bet is to ask the server or person selling the crabs.
Chesapeake Bay Rockfish (aka Striped Bass), according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) are often seen as the greatest success story of the Chesapeake Bay. Populations of this iconic sport fish plummeted in the 1970s and early 1980s, but then rebounded because of tightened catch restrictions.
According to an NPR article from 2007, “Whether you call them striped bass, greenheads or squid hounds…Rockfish, as they are called around the Chesapeake Bay, taste absolutely divine breaded and fried, baked in parchment, seared in a cast-iron pan or grilled over hot coals. Fans of the almighty rock argue there is no better fighting fish to land than one of these shiny, green-tinged creatures.”
Q: How many meals per month can we eat?
A: The answer depends on size. Less than 28 inches, up to 3 meals. If the fish was over 28 inches, only 1 meal per month.
Q: How much is a “meal”?
A: One “meal” is defined as 8 oz for adults and 3 oz for children.
Q: What about kids?
A: One meal every other month if the fish is over 28 inches and 2 meals per month if the fish was under 28 inches.
Q: How do I know what size the fish was when caught?
A: Unfortunately, we know of no way unless buying the fish yourself (or catching it!). For this reason, Evolve Medical recommends treating all Rockfish meals as they are over 28 inches.
What about all the other fish? The list gets too complicated to summarize but can be viewed here. It is important to note that small and large mouth bass are known to have high levels of mercury particularly in parts of the Potomac and the Anacostia. Also, white perch from the South or Severn rivers should be limited to 2 meals per month and only 1 meal per month if caught in the West or Rhodes rivers.
A 2007 NPR article described Chesapeake Bay oysters as “Chesapeake white gold with a flavor and texture that begs connoisseurs to come back and shuck just a few more. Salty and succulent, these oysters embody the word “delicacy.”
Oysters commercially harvested from approved waters, packed under sanitary conditions, and properly refrigerated are usually safe to eat raw or cooked by healthy individuals but cooking oysters to an internal temperature of 140° F or greater for 4 to 6 minutes destroys the common microorganisms of public health concern (see below). The nutritional value of oysters is very good. Raw oysters have a protein content of about 9 percent, and a fat content of less than 2 percent. One-half pound of raw oysters contains about 150 calories.
Q: Why do people say not to eat oysters during “R” months?
A: The advice dates back at least to 1599, when it appeared in Englishman Henry Buttes’ cookbook, “Dyets Dry Dinner,” though some historians trace it to an ancient Latin saying (according to the website Live Science). Before refrigeration, shellfish were more likely to spoil in the heat. The other reason, though is that the summer months mark spawning season for oysters. Another reason is that the toxins that cause seafood sickness multiply rapidly in warmer summer waters, making their way into the plankton that oysters and other shellfish eat.
Q: So can we eat oysters during “R” months?
A: Yes! Just not your own harvest. Commercial oyster farms employ enough safeguards that oysters bought in a grocery store or in restaurants usually stay safe year-round. Combined with modern refrigeration, and the use of non-spawning oysters in farms, the old reasoning behind the R-month advice mostly falls apart today.