Ipswich’s green crabs must be good for something

Published Feb. 12, 2016 in the Ipswich Chronicle.

By Jeannette Hinkle, Ipswich Chronicle.

Food writer Heather Atwood screamed the first time that she opened up a cooler full of green crabs.

Atwood was experimenting with culinary uses for the invasive species, successfully producing a few explosively flavorful dishes with both soft shell green crabs and a green crab stock.

“It has this wonderful, crabby, briny taste,” Atwood said. “I made a risotto with green crab stock that was fabulous.”

Creating a commercial culinary market for the green crab is one of the most promising solutions for dealing with a green-crab infestation seriously damaging Ipswich’s clamming industry and the entire Great Marsh’s environmental resources.

Other green crab solutions include using them for bait and as compost to create a very rich, healthy soil.

Crab cooking

The process of cooking with the green crab, though, was slightly traumatizing for Atwood.

“I’ve never worked with something that seemed to be so much like a little monster,” Atwood said after describing a terrifying scene where green crabs crawled out of boiling oil covered in cornmeal. “These things are demonic.”

Luke Poirier said that the green crab’s reputation as an invasive, insect-like scavenger could ultimately block the development of a commercial market for them, one of the best strategies for getting the ravenous species out of Ipswich’s clam and eelgrass beds.

The strategy is simple: Create a green crab market and crabbers and clammers will harvest them to make money

“In every presentation, the comment comes up about how we are going to get people to eat something with this dark cloud hanging over it,” Poirier said. “There is a lot of stigma surrounding invasive species. Branding is very important because right now people believe it’s a small, ugly crab that is destroying our fisheries.”

Poirier, a PhD student at the University of Prince Edward Island’s Coastal Ecology Laboratory, has been working to develop a commercial fishery – or market – for the green crab for three years.

Poirier has been studying a Venetian market for a species almost identical to the green crab, a historic pedigree that might help people appreciate the culinary potential of the green crab. Poirier said a small group of Venetian fishermen have been pulling green crabs from the water for centuries, passing the knowledge of their craft to the next generation.

Importantly, these fishermen catch the green crabs at the most economically opportune moment — when they shed their shells. In Italy, Poirier said the soft-shell green crab is a delicacy that typically goes for 65 Euro per kilo. During the spring, the only thing on Venetian menus more expensive than green crab is North American lobster.

“It’s very valuable,” Poirier said. “It’s a very niche market.”

Over the course of centuries, Italian fishermen identified characteristics that indicate when a green crab will molt and become a soft-shell crab, Poirier said. Those identifying features are important because a timeframe is difficult to pinpoint. Not all green crabs molt at the same time, and catching a large number of soft shells requires a sorting through many hard shells. Green crabs are also cannibalistic, so growing them in captivity requires separation.

“We have these tanks that separate the crabs so they won’t eat their bunkmate,” Poirier said.

Poirier has been trying to replicate the Venetian practice in Canada with a more industrial technique. Poirier said that he is coming close to a reliable estimate about when green crabs molt near Prince Edward Island. When the science is perfected, Poirier thinks a profitable market for soft-shell green crabs could emerge.

“We’re really zeroing in on a molting time, at least in Atlantic Canada,” Poirier said. “If we can figure this out, we’re fairly confident that we can create a market to export them. My prognosis is cautiously optimistic. We need to develop products that give fishermen an incentive to be on the water.”

A unique ingredient

Though Atwood’s experience cooking with the green crab was harrowing, there is much to celebrate about the green crab as an ingredient.

Ipswich resident Roger Warner has been gathering and conducting research about how to create a productive fishery — market — for green crabs for years. Warner believes that at least part of the solution for the green-crab phenomenon lies in creating a high-end culinary market.

“The U.S. is turning into a nation of knowledgeable food enthusiasts,” Warner said. “We have cooking shows on TV around the clock and food scientists are popping up more and more on TV and radio.”

Food science is on the green crab’s side, Warner says, because the species is rich in the unique and powerful flavor umami.

“The scientists tell us that the five building blocks of the food experience are sweet, salty, sour and bitter tastes, plus umami, which is technically a flavor rather than a taste because it registers through the nose as well as the tongue,” Warner said. “These umami compounds intensify and prolong the sensory experiences that come from eating good food. Green crabs are high in natural, organic umami compounds, especially two proteins known as glutamic acid and aspartic acid.”

Warner posits that the newest generation of foodies will appreciate the green crab’s chemical makeup.

“What this means in your kitchen is, if you add a stock made from green crabs to a seafood stew, or many kinds of soup or a risotto, the dish doesn’t just taste pretty good — it becomes almost indescribably delicious, with a flavor that lasts a long, long time on the palate.”

Warner thinks that if marketed correctly, the green crab’s notorious appetite for native species like the soft shell clam and valuable ecosystems like the Great Marsh could further motivate sustainability-minded consumers to throw a green crab or two into their carts at Whole Foods or gourmet grocery stores.

“From a marketing standpoint, to be able to take a negative, an ecologically-destructive invasive species, and turn it into a positive, a genuine source of fantastic food experiences, is a pretty easy sale to make to informed consumers,” Warner said. “It’s a win-win-win.”

Warner estimates that soft-shell green crab could sell for as much as $30 per pound, but emphasized that stock, bouillon and crabmeat picked from shells by machines like those used by Canadian startup CanChine, could also contribute to a fully developed market.

“Assuming successful product development and positive reaction from chefs, it is media coverage and building relationships with wholesalers that will do most to accelerate the acceptance of green crabs as a gourmet food source,” Warner said.

Non-culinary uses

Though creating a fishery for the green crab is likely the most profitable use for the green crab, people have been experimenting with other uses for the problematic crustacean.

Green crabs are often used as bait for whelk and tautog, sometimes called blackfish, but David Boyd of Maco’s Bait and Tackle in Buzzard’s Bay thinks the market for green crab bait is saturated. Boyd said that Maco’s sells 45-pound bushels of green crabs for 60 dollars during the spring and fall tautog season, but two to three suppliers fill their needs.

“People never run out of them,” Boyd said. “And when the blackfish season is over, nobody wants a green crab for anything.”

Before Ipswich trappers began selling their green crab haul for bait, they were composting them. Andrew Brousseau is the compost manager for Black Earth Compost in Gloucester, which composted most of the green crabs brought in by Essex fishermen. Brousseau said that he’d compost green crabs again if fishermen offered them.

“It was useful to our process because it helped us out making a richer compost,” Brousseau said. “And it helped the town out because they could ensure that the crabs were actually killed. Accountability was important to the town.”

Brousseau said that the green crabs added a source of nitrogen to compost mostly filled with carbon, which makes a more healthy soil.

Adding green crab shells to compost can also prevent the growth of parasitic worms called nematodes.

Green crab shells contain a fibrous substance called chitin and when the chitin-rich shells are added to compost, they can stimulate soil-dwelling fungi that feed on nematodes’ eggshells, according to the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management Program.

Researcher and businessman John der Kinderen has been researching potential pharmaceutical uses for green crabs because of their chitin-rich shells, and Ipswich High School student Billy Koshivas worked with Warner and Ipswich Shellfish Constable Scott LaPreste to create a green-crab-based fish food last year.

While Brousseau says that green crabs give Black Earth better compost, he says people should continue working to get them onto the dinner table.

“In an ideal situation, you would feed them to people,” Brousseau said.

Funding market research

Currently, Ipswich relies on cold winters and a bounty-based trapping program to keep the green crab somewhat in check. The town was recently awarded $15,000 in state funding to continue the trapping program this year.

Coastal Resources Coordinator for Massachusetts Bays National Estuary Program Peter Phippen said that the Division of Marine Fisheries granted his organization $8,500 in green crab remediation funds.

Phippen plans to divide that sum among three projects — research about the green crab’s impact on marsh erosion, a green crab population monitoring program and green crab market research.

Phippen said that he has been working with seafood companies, including the Ipswich Shellfish Co., to investigate an international market for whole, hard-shelled green crabs, possibly in Asia.

“They understand the issue. They understand that it affects their clams. They understand that there could be some money involved,” Phippen said. “It really comes down to a bottom line of how much they can be involved. That interest depends on how much they can potentially make.”

Warner said that researchers need to work with the commercial fishing industry to come up with a viable use for the green crab.

“We need to get practical, figure out what makes sense for the trappers and the seafood companies,” Warner said. “Once a demand takes off, anything can happen.”

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