By Jonathan Phelps
---- — IPSWICH — They’ve been in the ocean here since the late 1800s, but there is a growing concern about the continued invasion of green crabs and their impact on the region’s clamming industry.
“Green crab will eat about anything, especially juvenile shellfish,” said Scott LaPreste, Ipswich’s shellfish constable. “It is our biggest shellfish issue right now,” he said.
About 40 state officials, clammers and town officials from across the region, including Gloucester, Essex, Rowley and Newburyport, gathered last night at Ipswich Town Hall to devise solutions to combat the invasive species. Suggested solutions included seeking state grants, discussing ways to control the species’ population and finding a market for the crabs.
LaPreste said Ipswich is responsible for about 30 percent of the state’s clamming industry and typically brings in between $5 million and $10 million per year. Concerns about diminishing clam numbers exist across the East Coast, especially in Maine, he said. There has been about a 30 percent decline statewide in the past 14 years, according to state officials.
LaPreste said right now there is only a small market for green crabs for bait, though there are talks about finding a better way to market the crabs for other uses. He said there have been no consistent efforts to control the green crabs since the 1960s or ’70s, and milder ocean temperatures are seen as reasons for a possible increase in the crabs.
Steve and Brenda Turner of Ipswich have owned a commercial shellfish operation since 2007. Steve Turner said they previously had harvested their limit of 180 pounds in two hours, but now, they are lucky to get 120 pounds in three hours.
“We would go out two hours before low tide and find plenty of mussels,” Steve Turner said. “Now, they are dissipated.”
Jack Grundstrom, a Rowley shellfish commissioner, said the reason for the meeting was to ask, “Where do we go from here?” He suggested the need to possibly get the green crabs into the food market to control the invasion. He said it has been looked into by some in the industry, and there has been some positive reaction.
Bob Glenn, of the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries, said there could be a growing market for the crabs in Asia and as bait for whelk fisherman.
“The demand is getting greater for these,” he said.
Many people at the meeting suggested the crabs could possibly be composted and turned into fertilizer.
“We need to market these where they are valuable,” Grundstrom said.
One thing was clear at the meeting: There are no simple answers.
LaPreste said there needs to be a short-term plan to “catch and destroy” the crabs, along with long-term options, such as food processing.
“I’d like to see money for some kind of incentive to go out and destroy them, while we look into the market for them,” he said. “That is easier said than done.”
State Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, was at last night’s meeting and will host a more focused meeting in Gloucester on March 3. He said research money could be looked into at the state or federal levels.
“I’ve been very alarmed at reading about what is happening in Maine,” Tarr said. “I had been involved in the issue about 10 years ago, and it was concerning back then, but it seems to ebb and flow.”
The crabs are believed to have arrived in the United States in the late 1800s from Europe in the ballast of ships. It is reported that the green crab will “eat anything it can get its claws on,” including clams, mussels, other crabs, small fish, marsh and eel grasses, and the eggs of horseshoe crabs and lobsters. Just one of these green crabs, which grow to about 3 to 4 inches, can eat 40 half-inch clams a day.
There are no known predators of the crab, and as adaptations have enabled it to survive in colder water, its population has flourished.
Maine is said to be maybe two years away from having no soft-shell crab business due to these predators, Grundstrom said.
LaPreste said these meetings are important to address the issue in the future.
“My hope is they increase awareness and start movement on an organized solution,” he said.
Correspondent Michelle Pelletier Marshall contributed to this report.
Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.