From Menace to Moeche
Photos by Michael Piazza
A Nonprofit Group Looks to Venice for Culinary Inspiration to Control Destructive and Invasive Green Crabs in New England
The European green crab is a tough and voracious little crustacean. Just one of these invasive creatures can devour 40 native New England soft shell clams in a day while also eating mussels and oysters and destroying vegetation in important intertidal areas. But if the nonprofit Green Crab R&D Project has its way, the crabs will soon begin meeting a fitting end: on New England dinner plates.
Green crabs are a prized delicacy in Venice, Italy, where they fetch up to seven euros each on restaurant menus. For food-obsessed Venetians, the brief season for soft shell green crabs, known as moeche [moh-eck-ay], is reason for celebration. But for New England fishermen and those who protect tidal areas, there is little to celebrate so far. Here the crabs are treated as a nuisance for their aggression and destructiveness; their value is limited to a few cents a pound as bait. Creating a culinary market for green crabs is seen as one of the best hopes for controlling their population.
The Green Crab R&D Project is actively working with area fishermen, chefs and commercial processors to develop a market for green crab meat, soft shells and roe. They even have a new cookbook that encourages home cooks to add green crabs—which come in all colors of the rainbow and turn red when cooked (like other crustaceans)—to their repertoire.
The invasive crabs first traveled to New England waters from Europe in the ballast of ships in the 1800s. Since then, their population has taken off. Female green crabs produce up to 185,000 eggs per year, so the species has spread quickly. According to Mary Parks, executive director of the Green Crab R&D Project, they have invaded every continent other than Antarctica. Since green crabs have been in New England longer than many other places, the population is densest here but they can be found all along the Atlantic seaboard from Canada to the Chesapeake.
Parks and Roger Warner founded the Green Crab R&D Project in 2017 as they became aware of initiatives going on across New England to combat overpopulation. Parks had previous experience marketing invasive species with Boston-based seafood wholesaler and retailer Red’s Best. A commercialization plan seemed a natural part of the green crab solution as well. The team they’ve assembled includes activists, chefs, students, seafood industry professionals and fishermen. Their goals include both mitigating the invasive impact of green crabs and providing local fishermen an alternative source of income.
“Green crabs destroy eelgrass, which is a nursery habitat for all these species we love to eat. They also out-compete local crabs. In recent years, it’s come about that they really are—basically all over the world—one of the worst invasive species,” says Parks. Cold winters, which have been in short supply in New England in recent years, are one of the few natural checks for the green crab population.
How many green crabs have invaded New England? According to Parks, “We have no idea. They’re not federally regulated. Fishermen are not required to report them.” For 2017, the National Marine Fisheries Service reported just over 157,000 pounds of green crabs were caught in American waters, with 133,000 pounds coming from Massachusetts. Parks says that as Green Crab R&D works with local shellfish constables, they have heard of single fishermen who have landed far more than that national total.
“We know that there are massive bait trucks, literally 18-wheelers being filled to the brim with green crab,” Parks says. Because the federal database is so incomplete, the nonprofit is focusing on filling in these data gaps in coming months. In communities like Ipswich, fishermen are paid a bounty of about 40 cents a pound to encourage them to catch and haul in green crabs. Currently, most of the haul is used for bait or compost. Expanding the market to restaurants, food processors and home cooks is likely to be much more profitable for fishermen and will encourage more to get in the business.
Thanh Thái, who co-authored The Green Crab Cookbook with Parks, discovered for herself just how plentiful and tasty the species can be on one of her foraging trips in coastal New Hampshire.
“I would just go to the ocean, and my favorite thing is to look for things that I could eat. I’m always looking. Initially, I found three green crabs. They were quite small, but I made a meal out of three crabs, believe it or not. I made a salad that was very tasty,” Thái says. The green crabs reminded her of paddy rice crabs that she had eaten in the Mekong Delta in her native Vietnam. That species was also considered a nuisance for eating young rice plants. She was captivated by the idea of cooking with her new discovery.
“I actually have eaten a lot of invasive things. This is one of them that I can actually forage. Other people can do the same thing. It’s easy to start,” Thái says.
Although familiar with rock crabs and other species found around New England, she knew nothing about green crabs. Some searching led her to attend the 2018 Green Crab Working Summit in Maine, where she met fishermen, chefs, academics, regulators and others who are interested in mitigating the problem of invasive green crabs. There she connected with Parks, and the idea for a green crab cookbook was born.
Thái works full-time as a nurse practitioner in coastal New Hampshire but threw herself full-force to exploring culinary uses of green crabs. At the summit, she received a bag of green crab meat and roe that inspired her first recipe: green crab pâté. Thái said that she actually arrived at the conference with recipes in mind, and the name for a blog that she would begin soon after: Green Crab Café. After the summit, Thái’s next step was securing a source of crabs for recipes. A local fisherman gave her a crab trap that she modified with parts from Home Depot to catch the smaller green crabs. Soon it became clear how plentiful they are. On her first outing, she trapped 101 green crabs in about two hours. She has gone on to catch nearly that many in a single hour.
With a steady supply of green crabs, Parks and Thái were off and running with recipe development.
“Essentially, in those couple of months, [Thanh] did more R&D in terms of green crab recipe development than anybody in the history of the world,” Parks says.
“I was very productive. Anytime I get something that’s new, something that I haven’t eaten and something that no one really is interested in, I want to see if I can actually do something with it,” Thái adds. This led the pair to create dishes that feature green crab like fried green crab po’ boys, cioppino, oysters three different ways and linguine prepared simply with lemon and green crab caviar, or masinette.
Many of the recipes in their book are inspired by the food of Vietnam, including bún riêu, a popular crab rice noodle soup eaten with herbs and vegetables. Bún riêu is traditionally made from rice paddy crabs. Thái’s recipe calls for using green crabs to make the broth, washing, trimming and crushing them to release their meat. After straining out the shells, fine bits of crab meat remain, and along with crab roe and other ingredients, they flavor the stock. An even simpler recipe for crab stock involves boiling whole green crabs with lemon juice and aromatics (thyme, bay leaf, cloves and garlic). The cooked crabs are then crushed and returned to the liquid to simmer. Finally, the broth is strained through fine mesh. According to Parks, stock made from green crabs is less fishy and more refined in taste than other seafood stocks.
“Since it has that umami quality, it’s great in risottos, it’s great in chowders, it’s great in sauces and a lot of other things,” she says. Thái says she likes to reduce the broth and use it as a sauce for local scallops.
Green crab stock is one of the first commercial uses Green Crab R&D hopes to see take off. Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Co. in New York is currently preparing and selling frozen stock. Green Crab R&D is also partnering with chefs from Maine to New York to integrate green crabs into their menus. Recently chef Ned Grieg of Woodman’s of Essex updated a New England favorite dish as a Portuguese-style green crab stew (it’s in the book) and chef Ellie Tiglao of Tanám Narrative Cuisine in Somerville prepared fermented green crabs to use in several Filipino dishes. The indestructability of green crabs may make them a nuisance in the wild, but a great product for restaurant kitchens. Unlike other species, green crabs can live for days out of water and with minimal special care.
“All you have to do is keep them in a burlap sack in your walk-in, and they will be fabulous,” Parks says.
Home cooks can also begin discovering how to cook with green crabs. They are available locally from Red’s Best in Boston and Perfect Limit Green Crabs in Essex and Ipswich. A full list of bulk suppliers appears on the Green Crab Nation website.
Green Crab R&D plans to continue their work by creating more partnerships with chefs and growing the commercial market for green crabs. Their team will expand this summer with a two-month addition of Paolo Tagliapietra, a green crab fisherman from Venice who will train Maine, New Hampshire and Cape Cod fishermen how to sort and prepare molting crabs for soft shell season. In Venice, soft shells are very lucrative. They sell for as much as $55 a pound to restaurants that traditionally serve them deep fried with polenta. One of the techniques the Venetian moecante will share with the American fishermen is a traditional practice for identifying pre-molt crabs.
“It’s such an ancient, historic way of sorting crabs. You go under the hot Venetian sun under an umbrella during a certain time of day, holding up the crabs so you can see this tiny little difference in when the shell changes. Then, you essentially know that that’s a pre-molt crab. You put it into its individual well so it doesn’t cannibalize the other crabs once one of them gets soft,” Parks says. She will be joining the first U.S. group to learn the technique.
“It’s going to be really exciting. I’m going to spend a lot of time on the Cape this summer, hopefully stuffing my face with moeche,” Park says.
This story appeared in the Summer 2019 issue.