Foodstuffs: In Newmarket, Invasive Crabs Are On The Menu

Jun 16, 2016

They have green backs, pink bellies and are only about 2 inches in diameter. The invasive green crab has been destroying clam and scallop populations from South Carolina to Maine, since they were introduced here two centuries ago.

Now, some New England chefs are looking for ways to put this invasive species on the menu.

  “I’m probably gonna upset some of my fisherman friends,” says Brendan Vesey, “because I think tuna is delicious, and I understand why we catch it. But I currently don’t serve it.”

Vesey is the chef at The Joinery, an upscale restaurant in Newmarket, N.H.

Why not serve tuna? Vesey says eating that one big predator at the top of the food chain throws off the whole ecosystem. Instead, his menu reads “Invasive Green Crab Bisque, with seared fish, fresh peas, and house-made bacon. $10.”

Brendan Vesey, chef at The Joinery, makes stock from green crabs.

Just after I arrive at The Joinery, fisherman Everett Leach stops by with a 20 pound bucket of green crabs. “Keep an eye on ‘em,” he tells Vesey, “they’re runners.” As Leach plucks one green crab off the floor, another drops from the rim of the bucket.

Green crabs are native to Europe and Africa, but arrived in New England two hundred years ago. They eat a lot of the things fisherman are after: clams, oysters, mussels, soft shell crabs, and scallops.

The Maine Clammers Association describes green crabs on their website as “a cancer literally eating away at Maine’s marine resources.”

Vesey pays two bucks a pound for these guys. That’s a third what he’d pay for steamer clams, and a ninth what he’d pay for scallops. Almost as soon as he writes the check, Vesey starts tossing the crabs into two big stock pots.

“I’m gonna put them in a hot pot with some oil in the bottom and toast the shells up, then I’ll  add liquid to make stock,” he says.

For now, stock is about the only thing you can make with these invasive crabs. Vesey says you could spend hours shelling all 20 pounds of these crabs and only end up with a half-pound of meat. “They’re really small,” he says, “the shells are rock hard.”

Eventually, Vesey grinds up and strains the shells and the crab meat. He trades the mush, which makes good chicken feed, for eggs at a local farm.

The stock is green and pungent and tastes sweet and rich.

Vesey hopes someday he can do something more with these little critters than just soup.

With blue crabs -- the kind you find in Maryland -- fishermen have figured out how to catch them just before they shed their shells, then harvest them while their shells are soft. That’s soft-shell crab.  “If we had those,” Vesey says, “we could probably get rid of green crabs in a year. Everyone wants to eat that.”

It’s been two hundred years since the New England shoreline was free of these invasive predators.  Without them, think of all the oysters and scallops there’d be to go around.