All about Maryland Blue Crabs
Blue crabs, the official crustacean of Maryland, are an integral part of recreational and commercial fishing in the waters of the east coast. From Maryland, to South Carolina, to Louisiana, blue crabs are enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of consumers every year.
Although blue crabs are native to the western edge of the Atlantic Ocean, they have been introduced to Japanese and European waters and have been observed from the Baltic Sea, North Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea. However, despite their widespread presence, they still maintain the largest fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay region of the United States.
The economic importance of blue crabs to the Chesapeake Bay is undeniable. In 1993, the combined harvest of the blue crabs was valued at around 100 million U.S. dollars. However, due to the over-harvesting, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources eventually created stricter guidelines for harvesting blue crabs to help increase populations. Once plentiful, the reported catches by Crabbers is less and less each year. (At Mdcrabbers, we source our crabs from other locations after the season is over, including areas such as Louisiana, North Carolina…and supply once again Maryland crabs when in season).
Blue crabs typically mate during the spring and into the summer, when the waters are nice and warm. The process of mating itself occurs in low-salinity waters in estuaries and rivers. Once a male crab has found a female mate, a courtship ritual is performed which leads a process where the male will “cradle carry” the female. This process, which lasts 2-7 days, allows the male crab to protect the female crab while she is molting and enables the male crab to mate with the female crab while her shell is soft. After the process of mating is finished, the male crab will continue to protect the female crab until her shell has hardened.
When the female crab spawns, she will produce an average of 2 million eggs, and as many as 8 million eggs, depending on the size of the female crab. The eggs will take around 2 weeks to fully develop and hatch. Once the baby crabs hatch, they can be anywhere from 2-5 inches in diameter. As with every other arthropod, blue crabs grow through the process of molting. As the crabs get older, they begin to shed less frequently. Once a blue crab sheds around 18-20 times, it will then be considered sexually mature. At this point, they can start the mating cycle all over again. However, once they have hit this stage of sexual maturity, adult crabs will only live for an average of less than a year. The maximum age of any Mid-Atlantic blue crab is roughly three years.
A blue crab is vulnerable throughout the entire course of its life, especially during the molting phases while their shell is still soft. In their larval stage, blue crabs can be prey to fishes, jellyfish, and other animals that primarily feed on plankton. In their juvenile stage, they are preyed on by fishes, birds, and other blue crabs.
Blue crabs are considered opportunistic feeders. This means that despite their size, location, or the present season, they will eat whatever is available to them. They can eat a variety of foods, such as fishes, clams, shrimp, worms, as well as other crabs.
Blue crabs are commercially harvested by using a box-like trap known as a "crab pot" which is made out of wire mesh. The crab pot typically features two holes that the crabs can crawl into, but with the way the crab pot is designed, the crabs can’t crawl back out. A crab pot can be baited with several types of meat, including fish, chicken or eel. The bait is then placed into a small enclosure in the bottom, which will lure the crabs into the pot. There are many other ways to catch crabs, but this is how they are typically harvested for commercial reasons.
Traditionally, crabs are placed into tall pots with a rack on the bottom of the pot that keeps the crabs elevated. Alternatively, double boilers can also be used. Water is poured into the pot but the crabs are not submerged but rather are cooked by the steam produced by the boiling water. Typically, seasoning, which ranges from salt and pepper, to vinegar, to Old Bay (popular on the east coast) is added onto the crabs themselves, into the water, or both. The crabs are done once their shells turn to a reddish-orange color, similar to lobsters and shrimp.
It is very important to be cautious when breaking open the crab, because the shells of the crab, both the exterior and interior, can be sharp and may puncture the skin if not handled carefully.
The first step is to remove the ‘tab’ located on the bottom of the crab which connects the bottom half of the crab to the top half. For male crabs, the tab is long, thin, and pointed at the top, resembling a pencil. For female crabs, the tab is more rounded and looks like a spade.
Once the tab is removed from the base of the crab, it is easier to remove the top shell, which is essentially the entire upper half of the crab. Firmly grip the legs on one side of the crab, using them as leverage, to crack off the top shell. The top shell is then typically discarded, although some people eat whatever they find inside or use the shells to add flavoring in broths.
Next, remove the tube-like lungs on the sides, any other organs and innards in the center of the crab, and the protruding tabs that are the mouth of the crab. Once everything is cleaned out, you can break the crab in half.
Remove any of the thin shells that cover the white meat, but once again, be careful while doing this, or you may poke or cut yourself. It can be a lot of work removing the shells, but for most people, it’s well worth it to be able to enjoy the delicious white meat of the crab.