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Green crabs are wreaking havoc on our coastal habitat. So let’s eat them.

Green crabs have invaded nearly every continent.
Green crabs have invaded nearly every continent. (Paul Huibers)

“When life gives you lemons,” the saying goes, “make lemonade.” And when life fills the ocean with invasive green crabs that prey on the local shellfish population and wreak havoc on the coastal habitat, The Green Crab R&D Project says eat them. Not only will you be helping the environment, you will enjoy a culinary specialty that has been celebrated in Venice for generations.

Green crabs (which, despite the name can be any color, even multi-hued) are native to parts of Western Europe and North Africa. They first appeared on the East Coast of North America in the early 1800s, but did not proliferate until the late 20th century. Today they have invaded nearly every continent, and their populations and range are expected to increase with climate change. Though relatively small, they are fierce and prey on a variety of shellfish. In their search the crabs cut through eelgrass, damaging essential sea life habitats. Each female can lay 185,000 eggs per year, and according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, a single crab can eat 40 half-inch clams in a day.

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The Green Crab R&D Project (greencrab.org), established in 2017, is a nonprofit dedicated to developing markets for green crabs, both to remove the predatory creatures from the water and to help fishermen and -women develop alternative sources of revenue. In February the group released “The Green Crab Cookbook,” written by executive director Mary Parks and Thanh Thai and contributors to the Project. All proceeds from the book go to the organization.

The daughter of an environmental science teacher, Parks grew up in Maine. She says she knew green crabs were invasive “early on” and first ate them in 2005. Thai, a native of Vietnam who moved to Bangor with her family in 1980, when she was 8, grew up fishing. In coastal New Hampshire, where she lives now, the family nurse practitioner spends much of her free time foraging the ocean for food. About four years ago, while searching for periwinkles and seaweed, she found three green crabs. Unsure of their species, she knew they were different than the crabs she used to catch. She took them home and, she says, “made a meal out of them.”

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In 2018, a contact at the University of New Hampshire told Thai about a green crab summit in Portland, Maine. Before attending, she says, “I was already thinking of ways to cook them.” Parks, who was at the summit, was in the early stages of work on her book. The two met and decided to collaborate.

Saying she sees green crabs as a problem and an opportunity, Parks notes, “They pose a major threat to soft-shell clams,” especially in New England, where they have led to closures of soft-shell clam flats in Maine. They also prey on mussels and oysters. “[But] it’s impressive the number of clammers who have seen the impact who say, ‘This is an economic opportunity to diversify my business, to go into an industry that I know is going to be around in 10 years because these crabs aren’t going anywhere,’ ” she says.

One of those fishermen is Jamie Bassett, who is now a Green Crab R&D Project member. A 13th-generation Cape Cod native, Bassett is a Chatham-based shell fisherman and sugar kelp farmer who established Green Crab Nation as a way to diversify his business. (Full disclosure: I recently wrote about Bassett’s kelp farm for another publication.) He started selling them as bait a few years ago, but, he says, “I always thought there was something more that could be done.” He found the Green Crab R&D Project online, then met Parks and Roger Warner, a founder.

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Bassett traveled to Venice in April to learn from fishermen there how to harvest the crabs at just the right time before they molt to sell them as soft-shells, when they are most desirable. “My grandfather had me eating shellfish from the time I was little. This is the most delicious thing I’ve eaten,” he says of the soft-shells, or moeche, as they are known in Venice. Paolo Tagliapietra, a Venetian crab fisherman from a long line of them, has been on the Cape working with Bassett since late spring.

“The connection that is powerful is how revered [the crabs] are in Venice and regions across the Mediterranean as soft-shells and caviar,” says Parks. “There is a very rich culinary culture.” That, coupled with the crustaceans’ intense, sweet flavor and opportunity to help preserve the aquatic environment, is translating to burgeoning excitement from many chefs.

Locally, Michael Pagliarini, chef-owner of Benedetto and Giulia in Cambridge, is anxiously awaiting his first delivery of the season, saying, “We are on board and we are brainstorming about how to get them on the menu.” Pagliarini, who first enjoyed moeche with his wife in Venice, prepared a meal last summer using 50 pounds of green crabs that included housemade green crab focaccia with blistered shishito pepper — and a bit of excitement for the kitchen staff when a few of the “teeniest, angriest crabs” briefly ran free. Noting that his work with the relatively new ingredient is inspired by “culinary curiosity and interwoven with our changing climate and getting fisheries to adapt,” Pagliarini asks, rhetorically, “How can chefs create food that’s not only delicious but thoughtful?”

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For home cooks, “The Green Crab Cookbook” offers dishes for every skill set and taste, from simple stock to picking meat and caviar from the bodies, to Vietnamese, Portuguese, New England, and Southern comfort foods, and more. Photo tutorials walk readers through what may be unfamiliar steps.

Drawing on her Vietnamese heritage, Thai has adapted several of her native country’s standard dishes for the book. A popular comfort dish, Bun Rieu, is a crab noodle soup that is typically made with freshwater crabs — often invasive species that destroy shoots in rice paddies. Thai has modified the recipe using green crabs, which she says make it even more delicious. There is also a recipe for crab Banh mi, based on the sandwiches her mother made and sold from a cart when Thai was growing up. She substituted green crab for her mother’s more traditional pork but re-created the black bean sauce of her early childhood.

The Green Crab R&D Project is working hard to build awareness and make green crabs available through multiple channels. The bad news/good news is, according to Parks, “They’re everywhere. And they’re easy to catch.”

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Andrea Pyenson can be reached at apyenson@gmail.com.