BALTIMORE — It's a place nearly synonymous with its beloved regional delicacy: soft-shell blue crabs. For residents of Maryland, tucking into a crab cake or cracking into a bushel of steamed crustaceans along with a cold beer is practically a cultural institution.

That's why an animal rights group's new campaign of encouraging people in Maryland's biggest city to stop eating their iconic blue crab and other marine creatures is raising eyebrows. A number of residents reacted Friday with bewilderment or outright laughter.

In recent days, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals erected a billboard near Baltimore's bustling Inner Harbor featuring Maryland's official state crustacean, the blue crab, with the words: "I'm ME, not MEAT. See the individual. Go Vegan."

It's part of a nationwide campaign by the group encouraging people to embrace a diet with no aquatic creatures or other animals. PETA has placed similarly-themed billboards in several other U.S. locations, including one in Maine targeting lobster consumption.

Tracy Reiman, an executive vice president of PETA, said crabs value their own lives, feel pain, and possess "unique personalities." She said the Baltimore billboard aims to give city residents "food for thoughtabout sparing sensitive marine animals the agony of being boiled alive or crushed to death in fishing nets simply by going vegan."

The animal rights group is paying for the Baltimore billboard — situated near popular waterfront locations known for crab cakes — ahead of September's Baltimore Seafood Festival.

There's no shortage of local crab enthusiasts taking to social media to share their reactions on Twitter. "Oh naw they done crossed the line," one Baltimore man wrote. Early Friday, Jimmy's Seafood restaurant tweeted an image of a pile of steamed crabs with the message: "Good morning @PETA!"

Not everyone is mystified by the effort. People at a Baltimore vegetarian eatery called Land of Kush — where a vegan crab cake was recently named by PETA as having one of the top 10 vegan seafood dishes nationwide — were hopeful that the campaign might encourage more people to transition to a no-meat diet for any number of reasons.

But at the famed Faidley's restaurant in Baltimore's Lexington Market, where people eagerly lined up Friday for seasoned crab cakes, fried snapper or oysters on the half-shell, it was hard to find anyone who took Baltimore's version of PETA's pro-vegan campaign seriously.

"I'd put their chances of success here at nil," said Bill Devine, who operates the historic city seafood institution with his wife, Nancy Faidley Devine. "Baltimore and crab cakes, it's like the same thing."