The European green crab arrived on the East Coast in 1817, probably in ballast water or because some sailor thought dumping a bucket of crabs overboard wouldn’t hurt a thing. Their arrival was a slow tidal wave, as the crabs spread up and down the coast and north to Canada.
Since it arrived, the crab has been munching its way through soft-shell clams, oysters, mussels, scallops and smaller crabs, as well as devastating beds of sea grass that serve as a vital incubator for small fish and invertebrates.
The green crab is a prolific breeder with few predators and little utility on the table. They are edible, but too small to make it worth shucking them, since they range from only 2 to 4 inches across.
North Shore documentary photographer and filmmaker Nubar Alexanian produced a riveting seven-minute film in 2018 — “Recipe for Disaster: Green Crabs in the Great Marsh” — about the crab’s devastating invasion. As he works to raise awareness, researchers are searching for ways to make the crab marketable.
The Green Crab Cookbook (GreenCrab.org) offers up tasty recipes — caviar crab cakes, anyone? — but the idea that even recipes will rein in these prolific crabs is a pipe dream, at present. But there are efforts on other fronts, too. Researchers in Canada and the U.S. are working on ways to use green crabs in cat food, and efforts at composting them for use in fertilizer show progress as well.
The latest idea to turn green crabs into something useful comes from McGill University chemist Audrey Moore, working with a team from Nova Scotia’s Kejimkujik National Park Seaside, to turn the crab’s shells into biodegradable plastic cups and utensils. The shell’s contain polymer chitin, something found in crustacean and insect shells. And Moore’s team believes there’s potential to crush up crab shells and extract the chitin to make this natural alternative to plastic.
There’s something very satisfying about the idea of someday enjoying a fresh green crab and mint salad in a biodegradable bowl with a biodegradable fork, both made from the hard shells of these pesky little crabs. Sweet revenge.