By: Elizabeth Dinan
By: Elizabeth Dinan, Seacoast Online
Invasive, destructive and with scant meat under their hard shells, green crabs are being studied by global scientists who hope eating the crabs will cull their numbers.
The challenges of using green crabs as food are many, but Moxy chef Matt Louis has teamed with University of New Hampshire scientist Gabby Bradt to overcome them. On Moxy’s menu Tuesday was a green crab stew with chicken sausage and chili oil.
Louis explained that because the small crabs’ shells are usually very hard, “it’s not feasible to go after the meat.” So he extracts the flavor by cooking them whole and using the stock for soups and stews, or in risotto and paella. Expanding the use of green crabs for food, said the award-winning chef, is dependent upon being able to predict when they’ll molt and harvesting them at the right time, when their shells are soft.
Bradt, a mother of three with a PhD in zoology, is a fisheries specialist with UNH and Sea Grant New Hampshire, who has been recruiting citizen scientists to help her study the crabs’ molting habits. She said green crabs “decimate everything,” eating as many as 40 mussels or soft shell clams a day and they reproduce veraciously. One female will lay one or two clutches of eggs a year and there are about 180,000 eggs in a clutch, she said.
“There are millions and millions” of green crabs along the New England coast, said Brandt, who explained green crabs have “decimated” New Hampshire’s soft shell clam population.
“They can air breathe and they eat everything in sight,” she said. “Their only true predators are some fish and birds.”
Last week, Bradt set one green crab trap off Seabrook Harbor and within 24 hours caught about 200 crabs. The week before she trapped 450 in a single day.
The challenge to getting them when their shells are soft enough to open, for their sparse amount of meat, Bradt said, is there’s only a one-day window when they’re molting before the shells turn hard again. To make things more challenging, scientists have just a 25 percent success rate for predicting when green crabs will molt, other than knowing males molt in late spring and females in the early fall.
Last week Louis had a green crab stew with tomato and cauliflower on his menu and his crab supplier is coming Thursday with more crabs. He’s made a green crab Newburg sauce he served with pollock and hake croquettes. A rabbit dish with green crab sauce recently “flew out the door,” he said.
Louis described the flavor of green crabs as richer than the crab meat most people are accustomed to, adding it has “more depth.”
Bradt said scientists working locally, as far north to Canada and in Italy, are all working on the green crab population problem while brainstorming solutions. She said she tried using them at home for garden fertilizer but found it “super stinky,” casting the aroma of “low tide” for about a month. There are people studying whether green crabs are viable as bait, while Bradt is thinking about calling a large international soup manufacturer and asking it to consider making green crab soup.
“We’re all trying really hard to get people to eat them,” she said.
Bradt said the UNH Dining Club recently made a green crab bisque. She said she’s had them deep fried, to be eaten like popcorn, but Louis said he tried that and called it “OK.” He said items on his menu should be “really craveable” and something “people would come back for.”
Members of the public are invited to learn about and hunt for green crabs on Thursday, under Bradt’s tutelage, at Boar’s Head in Hampton from 1 to 3 p.m. For more information about that monthly “Great Green Crab Hunt,” go to tonaturegroupie.org/events-training?jobId=a020f00000eLurMAAS.
Bradt will also be participating in the Green Crab Working Summit in Portland, Maine, June 6-7 and she said citizen scientists are invited.
“The summit is designed for fishermen, chefs, consumers, anyone in the seafood industry, regulators, scientists and educators who have been thinking about, studying or already fishing for, or eating green crabs,” according to the summit information. “Let’s come together to strategize on how to develop a viable fishery and markets for this invasive crab, a delicious, plentiful and full of potential crustacean, that is wreaking havoc economically and environmentally.”
For more information about the summit, visit seagrant.unh.edu/nh-green-crab-project.
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