Tasty, Abundant and Fun to Catch
Blue crabs are one of Alabama’s most popular marine resources. Blue crabs, Callinectes sapidus, are found from Chesapeake Bay to Mexico and have been described as one of the tastiest seafoods in the world. Who doesn’t love a grilled red snapper topped with crabmeat or crab cakes or a scrumptious crabmeat omelet or crab and corn bisque?
I could go on and on, but where do these tasty creatures come from? Their life cycle is very interesting and covers a lot of territory. As blue crabs grow, they migrate into open waters of bays and sounds where they reach sexual maturity. Mating will occur in inshore waters during the summer and fall. When females have reached sexual maturity, they will release chemicals into the water. This attracts males in the vicinity.
Males can only deposit a sperm packet just after the female molts, the process where a new shell replaces the old one. To ensure his genes will be passed on to the next generation, the male will delicately cradle the female while her shell hardens in order to protect her. This will be the last time the female will molt and this molt is often called the terminal molt.
The new shell can take about 12 hours to harden completely. When the process is over, they will separate and go their separate ways. Males can mate with numerous females during the season; therefore, harvest pressure on males has not been shown to affect overall population success in blue crabs.
Return Sponge Crabs to the Water
Eggs are consolidated in masses located under the abdomen of mature females. That mass resembles a sponge, hence the common term “sponge crab.” Eggs take about 10 to 14 days to hatch. During this time, the egg mass color changes from yellow-orange to red and then black just before hatching.
Females will begin to move south toward the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Each egg mass can contain up to two million eggs and each crab will spawn up to twice in a season. As you can imagine this represents a tremendous number of potential offspring. If all of these crabs survived, we would no doubt be knee deep in blue crabs in no time making an exciting trip to the beach!
“Each egg mass can contain up to two million eggs and each crab will spawn up to twice in a season.”
However, habitat limitation, predation and water quality (such as adverse water temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen levels) are responsible for mortality rates exceeding 90 percent from the first larval stage to an adult crab. The more crabs that hatch out, the more crabs we will have. I know it is easy to pick up those sponge crabs off the beaches and shallow waters this time of year, but you must throw back the egg-bearing crabs to help propagate blue crabs.
While the females are making the migration to lower parts of Mobile Bay and beaches, males travel north to tidal rivers and spend the winters in deep holes there. While mature females do not, as a general rule, shed their shells after they have mated, and thus stop growing, male crabs continue to grow slowly and undergo additional molts. These larger, older males are popularly called “jimmies” or “selects.” Some studies suggest blue crabs can live up to three years. However, most probably live 18 to 24 months.
After hatching, larval crabs go through eight or nine stages before they reach what is known as the “first crab stage.” During previous stages, they look nothing like a crab, but closer to an alien from a science fiction movie. By the time they reach the first crab stage, they have been carried by tidal and wind currents into marshes. The marshes provide abundant cover and a ready food supply for the young crabs so they grow rapidly.
They reach sexual maturity within one year. Their ability to reach maturity quickly and reproduce in large numbers means fast recovery from overfishing and natural disasters such as hurricanes.
Crabbing is a Fun Family Activity
These animals have been pursued as food throughout recorded history by a variety of methods. One of the earliest methods was probably what we now call “chicken neckin’” where a chicken neck or other tough bait is tied to a weighted string and thrown into the water to attract crabs. After a short period of time, the bait would be slowly drawn back to shore or to the boat with hopes that a crab has grabbed the bait and stays on until it is within reach of a net. One of the best places to use this method is the Fairhope Municipal Pier.
As time went by, people improved the techniques of capturing crabs, including using a long line with smaller, baited drop lines tied at intervals. This allowed fishermen to work more baits at one time and catch more crabs. It was discovered that if bushes were tied to the drop lines, soft-shell crabs would crawl into the leaves for shelter. These bushes could be raised up and the hiding crabs shaken into a net.
Later, hoop nets were used. Finally, the modern crab trap was invented, which allows fishermen to bait traps and leave them out for a few days. This freed an individual from having to sit and watch the bait continuously and allowed that person greater opportunities to fish. Each trap could catch multiple crabs, thus, greatly increasing the efficiency of the operation.
The progress in efficiencies led to the necessity of creating regulations to control the blue crab harvest. The Marine Resources Division has worked with crabbers and processors over the years to develop regulations that have served both the resource and the industry. These regulations govern the size of crabs that can be taken, five inches from point to point (this is the distance laterally between the large points on either side of the crab), and the size of the traps that can be used.
Certain nursery areas have also been closed to the use of crab traps. Those areas include the Mobile-Tensaw Delta north of the Mobile Causeway and most rivers, creeks and bayous in Mobile and Baldwin Counties. Escape rings in traps were also mandated this year to allow small crabs to escape the traps. Additional measures may be considered as necessary depending upon the development of the industry and the health of the blue crab population. Commercial crabbing is hard work, but I sure do appreciate the product they provide.
Crab Meat is so Tasty and Mild
Live blue crabs can be caught from piers or other coastal areas or purchased at many retail seafood shops in coastal Alabama. The easiest way to enjoy crabmeat is to purchase it in 1-pound containers from one of the seafood retailers or order a crabmeat dish at your local seafood restaurant.
You can get crab claws and lump crabmeat for around $12 to $17 per pound. Jumbo lump crabmeat is a little more expensive, but worth the money if you are making a special dish where the larger meat is needed. I encourage you to pick your favorite recipe that includes crabmeat and try this tasty creature very soon.
Some great blue crab and other seafood recipes can be found in the “Cook It” section at www.eatalabamaseafood.com . In the “How To” section of this page there is also a step-by-step guide to cleaning boiled crabs that can be very informative if you are new to catching this delicacy. I hope you will enjoy this fine tasting resource in the near future.