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Even in retreat, green crabs confound Maine shellfish industry

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Even in retreat, green crabs confound Maine shellfish industry

BRUNSWICK — New state rules that loosen restrictions on commercial harvesting of European green crabs went into effect last week, part of an effort to curb the voracious invasive that has wreaked havoc on the state's shellfish industry.

But eradication of the crabs through commercial harvesting is being stymied by the lack of a market, said Darcie Couture, owner of Resource Access International, a consulting firm working with Casco Bay towns on shellfish issues. 

"That's always been the missing piece," she said.

It isn't for lack of trying. People have proposed using the crabs for everything from fertilizer to gourmet food, an idea promoted by Canadian entrepreneur Ron Howse earlier this year.

Dana Morse, a researcher with the University of Maine's Darling Center in Walpole, said there is a "small, motivated group" in the state looking for ways to market the crabs.

One idea is to use them as bait for the conch fishing industry in Massachusetts, but so far it hasn't panned out, Morse said.  

Earlier this summer, there was a glimmer of hope when Bay City Crab, a North Carolina-based processor, bought two truckloads of green crabs – 22,000 pounds – from harvesters in the Boothbay region. Bay City then sold the crabs to an unidentified cat food company, plant manager Chrissy Fulcher told the Bangor Daily News

Just as soon as the boom started, it sputtered to a halt. Harvesters told Fulcher that the 25 cents per pound she was offering wasn't worth it, she told the newspaper. 

“I think the price probably plays into it,” Fulcher told the newspaper. “I told a lot of them I’m hoping that if they would bear with us this year, we could make the market strong. And next year we might be able to raise (the price) a little bit."

Even though new rules from Maine Department of Marine Resources allow harvesters to take green crabs without a special license, eliminate requirements to report their catch, and allow crabs to be taken as lobstering by-catch, there's still no rush to get into the crabbing business full-time. 

Fishing for green crabs is literally not worth harvester's time, said Brunswick Marine Resources Officer Dan Devereaux; the 20-30 cents a pound being offered barely begins to cover fixed costs like fuel.  

Beyond the low price, the relative absence of green crabs in Casco Bay towns this summer could inhibit the rapid development of a viable market.

"Last year they were catching them in such numbers they thought, 'boy, if this keeps up, there could be some opportunities here,'" Devereaux said. 

Now, as the numbers found in the bay plummet, the urgency people had about creating a fishery for the crabs has faltered.

For example, two trapping sites in Brunswick's Woodward and Buttermilk coves pulled in only 145 pounds of crabs in the month of July, Couture said, a far cry from the hordes of crabs that covered the clam flats last year. 

"The markets hinge on the availability of the product, whatever it is," Devereaux said, adding that even with looser regulations, harvesters still won't invest in trapping crabs.

Devereaux said the number of green crabs in Brunswick this year was comparable to their numbers 10 years ago, before warming ocean water allowed a population boom.

Last year's exceptionally harsh winter might have precipitated a die-off in the crab population, but they might also not be venturing into the muddy intertidal zone because they've exhausted the food source there, Devereaux noted. 

There is anecdotal evidence that the green crabs have retreated from the mud flats to deeper water, according to Couture. In comparison to the paltry numbers trapped in Brunswick and Freeport, conservation groups in Harpswell's Quahog Bay have been bringing in boatloads of crabs: 2,000 pounds in July alone. 

The possibility that a large, permanent green crab population exists in deeper water could drive the creation of a sustainable market, Couture said, but the data doesn't exist to begin managing it as a fishery. 

Considering how damaging green crabs are to the environment, it's probably best not to develop a commercial industry, Devereaux cautioned. 

"We don't want to make it sustainable," he said.

"That's the issue that the Department of Marine Resources has to balance. They don't want to make it a sustainable fishery because the crabs are so destructive to the ecosystem. They just want to get rid of them."

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter @mcguiremidcoast.