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September 12, 2018

Researchers hope to get Maine green crabs on the menu

Courtesy / Manomet
Courtesy / Manomet
Manomet Senior Fisheries Scientist Marissa McMahan, center, handles a green crab during a monitoring trip.

Could deep-fried soft-shell green crabs be the next culinary sensation?

Researchers at Manomet, a Brunswick nonprofit, have discovered a culinary market for green crabs in Venice, Italy, that they think could carry over to U.S. restaurants.

Now they've received a $267,440 grant, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Saltonstall-Kennedy Grant Program, to see if the idea can be adapted to create a lucrative market for Maine fishermen.

A lucrative soft-shell green crab fishery has existed in Venice for over a century, Marissa McMahan, Manomet senior fisheries scientist, said. McMahan told Mainebiz that Venetian fishermen are getting $25 to $55 per pound for green crabs, depending on season and availability.

Manomet has worked with several volunteer fishermen to harvest soft-shell green crabs, which have been sold at $3 each to chefs at four restaurants: Brunswick Inn, Enoteca Athena and Henry and Marty, all in Brunswick, and at Salt Pine Social in Bath.

The chefs developed the crabs as a battered and deep-fried menu item, served whole.

"The chefs use the soft-shell green crab in the same way the use soft-shell blue crab," McMahan said. "It hasn't completely replaced blue crab on their menus because we don't have the supply yet."

The shells are soft enough that they become part of the food, she said.

"They have to shed their old hard shells to grow bigger," she said. "The new shell formed underneath is paper-thin and almost feels like Jello, it's so soft."

The process is called molting.

Study will focus on when the crabs are ready

Part of the reason for the study is to determine when the molt occurs.

"We nailed that down to some extent with the males, which generally molt in June and July," McMahan said. "But female crabs are doing something entirely different. It's kind of a mystery. The males seem to have a synchronized molt. The females appear to be more random. You'll find soft shells here and there in warmer months. We suspect there's something controlling the female molt. Maybe it's reproductive cycle or the growth cycle."

So how do you tell females from males? Flip the crab over to view its abdomen. On the male, it's triangular and pointy. On the female, it's circular and almost looks like a beehive.

"It's fairly easy to tell with the naked eye," she said.

Manomet will tackle the project from several directions, including long-term population monitoring, exploring new pathways to develop the soft-shell fishery, increasing marketing and outreach efforts, and beginning to determine the economic viability of a soft-shell fishery.

Experiments include deploying traps, used to sample catch and perform data measurements. Quadrats are used to perform intertidal monitoring.

Manomet has been able to determine molt indicators that occur on the bottom side of the crab, where a shadow appears in a certain region as the hard shell begins to separate off from the animal.

"It's very subtle, but once you've trained yourself to find it, it's obvious," she said.

Manomet discovered Venice's lucrative culinary market for green crab in 2016, when an acquaintance of McMahan's, Jonathan Taggart, traveled to Venice. A fine arts conservator, he lives in Georgetown, Maine, but was working in Venice and happened to be in a restaurant eating deep-fried soft-shelled green crab.

"He came back and said, 'Why aren't we doing this?'" she recalled. "I said, 'That's a great question.'"

Taggart brought a Venetian fisherman to Maine. The fisherman stayed two weeks and helped Manomet work with the crabs and identify the pre-molt. McMahan and her boyfriend, a lobster fisherman, traveled to Venice in 2017 to learn more.

Manomet had been studying green crabs anyway, but from the entirely different tack of trying to figure out how to protect the native soft-shell clam resource from the voracious predators. Now, she said, "Our goal is figure out a way to benefit from them. If they're here and they're here to stay, is there a way to take advantage of that? It's encouraging to see how readily people have responded to this work, and how willing restaurant customers and chefs are to try these products. In general, it's been really positive and encouraging. It seems like the market demand is definitely there."

McMahan has eaten the cooked green crabs numerous times. "I love them," she said. "The chefs we work say they have sweet flavor and they're easy to work with."

Green crabs are small compared with blue crabs, so the plating differs, she noted.

"If you order them in Venice, you get six or seven crabs on a plate," as opposed to one large blue crab, she said. "They're the size of the palm of your hand or smaller. And you get it with fries or polenta or whatever. So it's like a plate of fried clams or scallops."

The European green crab was brought to the United States in the early 1800s.

Today, they've invaded every continent except Antarctica, she said.

"They're one of the most widely spread and successful species in the world," she said. "They're incredibly abundant. They thrive in warmer temperature, so as the Gulf of Maine warms, we're seeing green crabs becoming more abundant."

Places in Massachusetts are inundated with green crabs.

In Ipswich, McMahan said, "Fishermen can catch 1,000 pounds of green crabs in a day, easily." Maine isn't at that level yet, she said. "It's hard to say exactly what the abundance here is, because we don't sample them the same way we sample lobster, for example. But we can easily set green crab traps and catch hundreds of pounds in a day in a very small area."

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