Where have all crabs gone? Surely not to Maine

Great hullabaloo on Courtmacsherry pier the other morning with dozens of boys and girls (and old boys and old girls) hauling onion bags stuffed with fish debris out of the sea and shaking the shore crabs hanging onto them into buckets, fish boxes and barrels.

The annual Crab Fishing event on the summer festival was in full swing.

The winning team, four boys and two girls of assorted Gannons, Noonans and Hegartys, landed 214 green crabs. The previous year, two Gannons and two Noonans took the trophy, with a count of 1,250 and many teams scored over 300. The total landed in 2014 was 5,030.

Only 2,317 were landed this year. All were released, unscathed, of course. My 8-year-old, grandson, living in Czech Republic, where there is no sea, had little practice but landed 47 on his own.

So, where have all the crabs gone? Have they emigrated to Maine, where they are called green crabs? Native Maine folk, many of them fishermen, have quite enough green crabs for the moment, thank you!

Found in Maine waters for a century, the European invaders (Carcinus maenas) have recently proliferated (rising sea temperatures in the Gulf of Maine?) and spread over tens of thousand of acres of eelgrass, cropping them like underwater mowing machines. They have attacked and devastated soft-shell clam populations, a stable of the local economy, filled up lobster traps, eating the bait and leaving no room for lobsters, and been so numerous that fishermen have had no option but to truck them to landfills, so they no longer live to propagate.

Eelgrass (Zostera marina) provides a nursery habitat for many fish species, purifies the water, stabilises the sea bottom and is a vital element of a healthy marine ecosystem. For the sake of the sea and the local economy, the best answer, of course, would be to turn green crabs into greenbacks. Make them pay.

If markets could be found, locals would be motivated to catch every last green crab in coastal waters from Maine to Nova Scotia. Greens have also turned up on the other side of North America. In British Colombia, they grow to 10cm. across, competing with high-value native rock crabs and devastating native shellfish. Recently, markets have been developed for chitin nanofibril, a new, natural raw material obtained from crab and shrimp shells, and effective in treating skin conditions. Markets for the crabs as food for cats, cage-reared salmon and humans are also being explored.

I spoke to a fisherman in west Cork who normally fishes brown crab or velvet swimming crabs. He tells me there is a market for the shore crabs in France, for use in cosmetics. He also says that in Kinsale, they grow to almost twice the size of those in Courtmacsherry, where the largest are about 6cm wide. Did Kinsale crabs hitch a lift to British Colombia?

Here, given the ‘random sampling’ at the Courtmacsherry Crab Fishing marathon, the drop in the numbers caught would indicate that the fortunes of shore crabs are on the wane rather than the ascendant. But then, water temperature (colder, rather than warmer than average) may apply.

Certainly, shore crabs are still common everywhere locally, and provide diversions and challenges for children on seaside holidays. Crabs can be caught, even if it is raining! However, if they’re large, they must be treated with caution, gripped across the back, behind the legs, well out of the way of the pinchers.

Crabs are either cocks or hens. One can tell which, by turning them over and looking at the flap beneath the belly. The wide flap is the female; sometimes, it will be packed with eggs. The narrower, pointed flap is the male.

In order to grow larger, male crabs go soft, and are then known as ‘peelers’. A soft peeler is a very nervous crab, hiding from anglers who would use him as bait, and everything bigger than himself that swims in the sea and flies in the sky.

He has to be ‘naked’ many times in a lifetime, taking off his existing shell as we would take off a sweater, only we don’t have five pairs of arms.

Removing the shell is a delicate task and, at the end of it, the newly emerged ‘peeler’ sits beside it, the perfect likeness of himself.

However, he is now half times as big again as his previous self, having blown himself up by absorbing sea water. He hardens again in the following days and ventures abroad considerably larger than he was; thus, he grows.


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