Turning a nuisance into a delicacy

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 5:30pm
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To beat the enemy, one must know the enemy, and that is just what members of the Shellfish Commission have undertaken in their war against the invasive green crab. It turns out there are lots of allies in this battle.

At their latest meeting, on January 8, commission member George Davis updated his fellow commissioners on his progress in researching and trapping green crabs (Carcinus maenas). “Katherine [Puckett] and I were given three traps,” said Davis.

Harbormaster Steve Land, who provided the town-owned traps, said the traps were “lent,” not given.

“The trap that was most productive was only in four feet of water,” said Davis, adding that some of the crabs caught in the trap were Asian crabs. “Catherine took one (green crab) home, cooked it and got one to two tablespoons of meat.”

He also reported that he had gone online and discovered a few resources on the biology of the crab, tips and recipes for cooking them, and alternative styles of traps. Of the latter, Land said: “That might be useful for the Harbors Department. We’ve been using the same traps for years.”

Davis’ research led him to Greencrab R&D (greencrab.org), a non-profit organization in Maine “committed to inciting a culinary market for the invasive green crab,” according to its website. To further the mission, they have put together a cookbook, simply called “The Green Crab Cookbook” that will teach you how to “Shuck green crab meat like a pro, dazzle with caviar crab cakes or whip up an easy broth for your favorite recipes.”

Davis reached out and heard back from Marissa McMahon, soft shell coordinator for the organization, and also a senior fisheries scientist for the non-profit Manomet, Inc. in Plymouth Mass. She provided him with, among other things, a green crab “pre-molt Field Guide” showing the various stages from intermolt, to pre-molt, imminent, and finally soft-shell. “Restaurants are now paying three dollars for a single soft-shell green crab,” said Davis. “If you get one that’s molting and deep fry it, it’s a delicacy.”

Land said information on the crabs could be included in the annual brochure that outlines regulations for both shell- and fin-fishing and enlist summer clammers to, if not harvest them for eating, “stomp on them.”

When asked when the crabs molt, Puckett said the males molt in the summer, but the females can molt at any time of year, “and they don’t know why.” The opportunity was not lost on Puckett, who is a shellfish and aspiring sugar kelp farmer. If the crabs can be identified in the imminent stage (one to three days before molting) they can be isolated in a trap and harvested at the optimal moment before the crab forms its new shell. Indeed, one of the crabs Puckett and Davis trapped was a soft-shell.

Commission Chair Joe Fallon said that he once filled a trap with soft-shelled crabs in one week.

The subject of re-doing the annual brochure came up later during a discussion on the proper disposal of fish racks. Dumping them back into the waters of the Great Salt Pond is discouraged – one of the problems with doing that is it provides more food for the crabs. But is the practice actually against Department of Environmental Management regulations? Harbors Dept. Assistant and Shellfish Commission Clerk Kate McConville has been trying to chase the answer to that question. So far, she hasn’t been able to find any applicable DEM regulations on its web-site and no-one has gotten back to her on her inquiries.

“You could suggest an ordinance” at the town level, said Land.

“I think a sign would be very helpful,” said McConville.

“I always believe in education rather than enforcement,” said Land. “Especially when it comes to tourists… they just don’t know the laws.”

Members of the commission perused the current regulations brochure, which Land thought was “too crowded,” and discussed how it could be improved.

“I prefer we don’t start it off with ‘no’,” said Land.

Commission member Wendell Corey suggested: “Maybe make two pamphlets — one for shellfish, one for finfish.”

“I think that’s a great idea,” said Land.