Friday, September 7, 2012

Maryland's Soft Shelled Treat

...soft-shell crabs are Chesapeake gold, a delicacy that commands higher prices. While peelers and soft crabs accounted for only about 5 percent of the overall crab catch last year, soft crabs sell for five times more on average than their bigger, hard-shell brothers and sisters, according to DNR's Davis.
Soft crabs are truly one of the culinary achievements of Maryland.  They may eat them soft in other states, but no one has spent as much time fixing and eating soft crabs as the denizens of Maryland.
Kitching said he gets $30 to $32 per dozen on average — and sometimes up to $40 a dozen for "jumbo" soft crabs shipped to New York — compared with $45 to $50 per bushel dockside for hard crabs. (A bushel typically holds five to seven dozen, depending on size.)
No surprise, then, that a soft crab sammy can cost $15-20 at a cheap restaurant.
He'll earn those higher prices, though, in the extra time and effort needed to turn peelers into soft crabs. Rather than sell his catch to a dealer, Kitching returns home to "babysit" the peelers in a dockside "pound," a shed where the crabs are kept in shallow tanks and checked repeatedly day and night until they doff their shells.
At one lab I worked at, we kept peelers to let them shed and eat.  In most cases, we caught the peelers off the pilings at the lab using a net on a pole, but a few came up in the crab pots that were fished off the dock. It's fascinating to actually watch a crab shed, a process that takes a few minutes to over an hour.
It takes a practiced eye to spot the faint early signs, but young crabs display telltale hints of color in their flippers indicating how close they are to molting. First white, then pink, and finally a relatively visible red tinge that means they're within a couple of days. Squeezing a flipper to feel for a new one forming inside the shell can narrow that range down to a matter of hours.
I learned this trick early on. It really not all that hard to learn, if you have access to a lot of crabs to show the difference. 
...Only about 20 Maryland crabbers still use the 19th century scraping gear, according to a study of the fishery done last year for the Environmental Defense Fund. Others use "peeler pots," variants of the wire-mesh traps or "pots" used to catch hard crabs. In peeler pots, a live male crab is used as "bait" to attract female peeler crabs looking for a mate as they prepare to shed their shells.
Scraping for soft crabs isn't the most environmentally friendly method in any event.  It hell or sea grass, and does a fair amount of damage to the bottom.

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