Hard sell: Brunswick researchers, restaurants team up to plate green crabs

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BRUNSWICK — When most people think Maine seafood, they think lobster.

But in the kitchen at the Brunswick Inn, executive chef Ali Waks-Adams has been cooking another local crustacean that has quite a different reputation: green crabs.

On July 17, a pot of oil sizzled on the stove as Waks-Adams dropped in a live, beer-battered green crab. She was cooking a “popcorn”-style fried crab to serve at dinner that evening.

The day before, Marissa McMahan, a senior fisheries scientist with the Brunswick branch of Manomet, dropped off the shipment of crabs for Waks-Adams to use.

McMahan has been working on developing a local soft-shell fishery for green crabs since 2016. With the help of Bowdoin College and volunteer fishermen, she’s been selling crabs fished from Harpswell waters for about $20 a pound to local restaurants.

In an interview earlier this week, McMahan said the idea behind the fishery is to quell the spread of green crabs, an invasive species that has been infiltrating New England waters and feedign on staples of the Maine fishing industry: clams, mussels, oysters, even other crabs.

McMahan said hers isn’t a “novel idea” and she isn’t the first one to come up with it. Fishing as a means of reducing a population has worked in the past.

“We’re pretty good at overfishing in this country,” she said.

The ways in which Brunswick chefs are using the crabs, however, is fairly new.

“What was somewhat novel was the idea of a very high-end market product – a lot of fishery ideas that have been talked around previously (involved) using (the crabs) as dog food or cat food,” she said. “What we’re attempting is to make it a more high-end culinary product.”

In addition to the Brunswick Inn, McMahan said other eateries that have used local green crabs include Enoteca Athena, Salt Pine Social, and Henry and Marty’s.

McMahan was inspired to launch the initiative after a friend of hers, Jonathan Taggart, told her about eating soft-shell crab in Venice, Italy, where similar fisheries had already been launched to target Venetian crabs.

Eventually, a Venetian crab fisher even came to stay with McMahan in Brunswick, and she made several trips to a fishery in Venice to work with fishermen, which, she said, is what “really picked the pace up.”

She also said her organization has partnered with people in Prince Edward Island, Canada, a place she described as “a couple steps ahead” of Maine in developing such a fishery.

One of the key elements in trapping the crabs is catching them at the right time in their molting cycle, or the shedding of their shell, which McMahan said “is a lot of hard work.” A partnership with researchers at Bowdoin College, however, has made the process easier.

All about the molt

Alicia Edwards, a rising sophomore at Bowdoin and a recipient of the college’s Doherty Coastal Studies Research Fellowship, has been working this summer to collect and catalog the crabs to see if they are molting.

McMahan said Dave Carlon, director of the Coastal Studies Center at Bowdoin, has been overseeing the crab project for five or six years, monitoring the crabs’ population, size, and frequency in different areas.

Edwards said the process of catching the crabs is modeled after how the Venetian crabbers do it, but because of the climate difference between the U.S. and Italy, some changes have been made.

“Since it’s a different temperature, they molt at different times; the lengths of their pre-molts are different,” she said. “So we have to do the same exact thing that they’re doing, (but) just translate it towards what’s happening in the U.S. and the northern area.”

Another key part of establishing the fishery, Edwards said, is convincing local fishermen that green crabs can be a lucrative catch.

“Right now, a lot of fishermen are like, ‘Why do I want to switch what I’m doing from being a lobsterman to a (crabber?)’” she said. “We’re trying to tell them it sells for a lot.”

McMahan echoed that sentiment, and called the entire effort a “grassroots community project.”

“Everyone has this vested interest in trying to combat this problem, but also to create diversification for fishermen,” she said.

Coming from a commercial fishing background, McMahan said she found fishermen by asking those she knew personally, and found interested chefs by making cold calls to restaurants.

She now has four fishermen working on the project, including Taggart, who now has his commercial green crab license.

‘Flavor of deliciousness’

As for the crabs’ potential in the culinary world, Waks-Adams said the crustaceans have a strong umami flavor, which she said roughly translates to “the flavor of deliciousness” in Japanese.

In addition to popcorn crab, she’s also used a minced version of the crab to make broth and green crab rangoon. They can also be fermented to use for fish sauce.

Their lack of meat, however, can be an issue, since they are quite small.

And, while the green crab craze may be catching on locally, Waks-Adams said the next hurdle might be getting the crabs on the national food radar.

Recently, for instance, she sent a note to an acquaintance who works as a producer on the Food Network’s “Chopped” to suggest the show incorporate green crab as an ingredient.

The reactions from Maine diners, at least, has been positive.

“If we can find ways to help boost our economy, keep our economy healthy, keep our fishermen working, then it’s gonna help Maine,” Waks-Adams said. “I think Mainers, actually more than any other place that I’ve lived, Mainers are really involved in their community that way. They really embrace it, they want to love it, they want it to be the next big thing.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

Ali Waks-Adams, executive chef at The Brunswick Inn, on July 17 prepares to fry a live green crab, caught the day before in Harpswell.

Bowdoin College student Alicia Edwards sets a green crab trap in water off Orr’s Island July 16. Edwards’ research this summer is helping a local scientist in her project to establish a green crab fishery.

Fried green crab, prepared by chef Ali Waks-Adams at the Brunswick Inn.

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