When last we talked about these tasty critters, I mainly addressed the regulations for catching blue crab in Virginia and the techniques for “chicken necking” AKA catching crabs by hand. Today, I’m going to talk a bit more about the life cycle of the blue crab, about my own conservation ethic regarding harvesting (which ties into my educational background in biology and my world view as a Pagan), and about how the heck to cook and pick these guys.
A bit more about blue crabs…
The blue crab (Callinectes sapidus–their scientific name, in Latin means “beautiful swimmer” and “savory”, respectively) is a keystone species in the Chesapeake Bay, where they play an important role in the food web. Blue crabs are:
- Prey for fish, birds & other crabs, particularly as rapidly molting juveniles and in their soft-shell state after molting.
- Prey for filter feeders in their larval state, where they are part of the plankton community.
- Predators on the benthos (bottom of the bay), eating just about anything, including each other…though they prefer oysters and clams.
- Detrivores–blue crabs eat the detritus that falls to the bay floor.
- Omnivores–blue crabs will even eat the roots and shoots of aquatic vegetation.
Blue crabs have a pretty interesting life cycle and migratory pattern. About two million crab larvae hatch from each egg “sponge” on the female crab’s abdomen, becoming part of the plankton community as filter feeders at the mouth of the bay. There are two larval stages, both bearing little resemblance to an adult crab and lasting about two months with multiple molts until the juvenile “first crab” emerges. These tiny 2.5 mm “first crabs” migrate up the bay into the estuaries and marshes, where they take refuge in the submerged aquatic vegetation beds, reaching adult size about 12-18 months later (which takes about 20 molts). When females molt and become “available”, they mate for the one and only time of their lives and then head down to the mouth of the bay where they overwinter in the mud. From that single mating, the female will spawn multiple times the following season. The male crabs (in addition to being able to mate many times over) will pretty much stay put in the estuaries, seeking deeper water to overwinter in the mud where the risk of freezing is less likely. Both female and male crabs enter this dormant period around November-December and reemerge towards the end of April-early May.
Determining a “Keeper”
Crabbing in the Chesapeake Bay has the highest commercial value of any area fishery. About 1/3 of all blue crab are caught here. After record declines several years ago, harvesting restrictions were put in place in both the commercial and recreational fisheries for blue crab. Since then, numbers have improved significantly, but are still below historic averages. While the reasons for this decline were more complex than a single cause, overharvesting undoubtedly played a role, and the subsequent regulations have helped the recovery (which is also thought to have multiple causes). Regulations limit the size of males and peeler crabs (the pre-molting stage) and the amount of crab caught daily.
In addition to following these regulations religiously, our family also makes the conscious decision to only keep males. Because the lifespan of an adult crab is three years, but the commercial and recreational demand on crab pushes the average adult lifespan to one year, we choose to not harvest any females and to give them another chance to make it to their spawning grounds. If even one of the females that we toss back makes a single spawn, that’s 2 million little larvae, of which one or two might make it back to complete the cycle again. For us, this is (part of) our way of paying our respects to a living, divine Sea.
Preparing the Crab
Just a reminder–ONLY STEAM/BOIL LIVE CRABS!!!
When it comes to cooking crab, I prefer steaming. All you need is a crab pot (a stock pot) and a steamer basket. If you boil the crab, all the crabby flavor goodness ends up in the water…but if you steam it, it stays in the meat where it belongs (or maybe I’m just imagining things). Either way, everyone has their own secret steaming recipe, and crab seasoning.
The most basic steaming recipe is equal parts apple cider vinegar and water OR apple cider vinegar and beer. Sometimes, I’ve seen people say they use white vinegar, some people also add salt or even seasonings to the steaming solution. Others recommend sprinkling the seasoning directly on the crabs as you layer them in the pot. I’ve discovered the yumminess of apple cider vinegar and hard apple cider with sliced oranges, and then sprinkling the crabs with a smidgen of Old Bay. Steam crabs for ~30 minutes–the crabs should be entirely red (like the picture up top)
Once the crab is cooked, you can either eat is as is, or glean the meat for cooking. Alton Brown (whose show on crabs I’ve linked below) recommends saving the shells and odds and ends for fishy stocks (you can do the same with shrimp heads and shells). If you plan to eat as is, cover your table with newspapers (easy clean up) and put out some bowls of melted butter (garlic butter is even better) and lemon slices. There is some technique to getting at the meat under the shell, if you have never eaten crabs from the shell.
Only freeze crab being used for cooked dishes. Better yet, prepare the dish first and then freeze it, as freezing changes the texture of the meat. Don’t freeze the crab in its shell due to the potential for bacterial growth. Cooked crab meat can, however be kept in the fridge for 3-4 days.
Crustacean Nation: Feelin Crabby (Season 7, Episode 1) of Good Eats with Alton Brown (well worth the watch!):