“Oh Golly… Do I Eat The Whole Thing?!” – a hard look at soft shell crab

You sure as heck do! Every last delicious morsel of this fascinating creature including the legs and pinchers. Every last, finger-lickin’ bit!

Honestly, soft shell crab is one of my most favorite foods. Every Friday when we get them in fresh at WFM… I always grab one with delight, grill or sauté it, slap it on a toasted brioche bun with horseradish sauce… and good golly! The harvest season for this crab is from May to September so I try and take full advantage of the season in a big way!

But I DO get a lot of questions from my customers about this curious critter in my case. Granted, they indeed look a little odd and somewhat terrestrial sitting there amongst the fish fillet, squid and octopus. Just last week, upon sighting first the shrimp and then particularly the soft shell crab, a little girl turned to her dad and said, “Why do they sell bugs?!” Hehe! Well… she is not far off. Crabs, shrimp and insects indeed share the phylum, Arthropoda. Smart little girl! It was actually her comment that prompted me to write this post.

Blue crabs really ARE blue – Photo by Heartland.org

Soft shell crab is not a species unto itself. They are a crab that has simply outgrown its shell and sheds or molts its exoskeleton and is harvested before the new shell can form. In the US, soft shell crab are blue crab that range from 4” to 5 1/2” across the back, point to point and are mostly harvested from the Chesapeake waterways and in the Louisiana gulf. The scientific name for this species is, “Callinectes sapidus” which means “savory, beautiful swimmer”. Indeed, its fate seems to have been sealed long ago with even this scientific attention to its flavor.

Blue Crab molting – photo by Virginia Farm Bureau

Truthfully, any crab could be harvested and sold as a soft shell crab but the larger species like Dungeness and King have a much higher profit when left to grow to full size. But ALL crab are at some point in their lives, soft shelled crabs. Most crabs will molt somewhere around 20 times during their lives.

So here is how a soft shell crab reaches your belly…

Crabbers catch crab in a variety of ways but commercially “crab pots” are generally used and the crabbers will sort through the caught crabs and look for ones that are about to molt. These are called “peelers” or “busters”. And how do they know this? They look at the rear legs or its “swimming paddles”. If the crab is ready to molt within 3 or so days, the outline of that leg will turn bright red. It is a sure sign.

Red line around rim of swimming paddle indicates eminent molt – Photo by agrilife.tamu.edu

These crabs will be transferred to a molting or shedding tank where they will be watched very closely, night and day. A soon-to-molt crab will ingest enormous amounts of water and bloat until they crack their shells. Once a crab has molted, there is only a 4-hr window between the shed of the shell and the beginning of the formation of a new shell. After 4-hrs, the shell will be too hard and make it unviable as a soft shell crab product.

Shedding tanks – Photo by St. Mary’s Seafood

And those ready to molt must be kept from the others that still have their hard shell. Because upon the moment of molting, not only are they soft but also rendered nearly immobile. Crabs are cannibalistic and the still-shelled crabs will quickly eat their slow-moving. soft brothers and sisters.

Once the crab has molted, they will put in a new pen for a hour or so, as it begins to turn its water weight back into calcium to create its new shell. Not waiting for this hour will cause the soft shell crab product to be too watery and tasteless. It takes expert skill to get these crab out of the water at just the right moment.

Ok… here comes the hard part. These ready-for-market crabs are then put into boxes and then into the refrigerator. Most soft shell crabs are shipped alive and will live for 2-3 days in the box unless they have been dressed (cleaned of their face, gills and aprons which kills them instantly). However, the refrigeration renders them into a rather comatose state and scientifically this means (as best we can hypothesize) that the crab will feel no pain. At least we think so.

Soft shell crab ready for market – Photo by LSU AgCenter

Now here is the really, really hard part and it seems an apt follow up to my last post about female scallops. I have just learned this information recently and it may make me reconsider purchasing soft shell crab in the future.

It has come to my attention that 90% of the soft shell crab we consume now are female. I was shocked by this. What the heck? Well… it seems that the crabbing methods are to blame. Now get this. Male crabs mate several times during their lifecycle but females mate only once! ONCE! The sperm plug that a male inserts in the female will last her lifetime. She can rely upon this “sperm stash” each year as she is ready to reproduce.

But here’s the rub. A female becomes sexually viable during her first post-pubescent molt (somewhere around 1 – 1 1/2 years old). She will approach a male 7 days before that molt as he will offer her protection from predators and other crabs while she molts her shell. And then mate with her. Because… wait for it… a female crab can only mate after she has molted and is soft… essentially when she is a soft shell crab. Whaaaaat?

Soft shell male hugs his “soft” female partner in mating ritual – Photo by Live Science

So… here is what crabbers are doing. They are putting mature “Jimmys” (or male crabs) into their crab traps. This attracts the “peeler” females that are ready to molt… the exact same crab needed to produce soft shell crab. So it comes down to the fact that females are so much easier to catch! Whaaaat?!

So… if females are caught for profit before they get a chance to reproduce what will happen to the population. Is this sustainable? I think not! It is being said that the Chesapeake soft shell crab population (in Maryland and Virginia) has seen a huge decline in blue crab population and has now been surpassed by Louisiana as the top soft shell producers in the US. Male and female crabs actually exist in different areas of the Chesapeake waterways and thusly females are very easy to locate and catch using the Jimmy system. Louisiana does not see the same regional separation due to gender of the crabs.

I will tell you that I am investigating this and will get back to you regarding any updates. I am also writing my regional superior at Whole Foods to understand better the situation. WFM is very good about keeping its eye on sustainability and as we carry soft shell crab, I am interested in their info regarding this situation.

What ya don’t know… huh? I am always concerned about the sustainability and humane treatment of all animals we eat as food. It is a major issue with me. And the reason that I was a vegetarian for 22 years before I became a “whole-beast butchery” intern and then went on to fish mongering at Whole Foods. I am at this job because this is what I really care about.

So if any of you have any information regarding this topic… please comment. I would love to hear from you!

In the meantime, I will continue to eat soft shell crab through the end of this season. And then… I dunno. Maybe I will just refrain from eating Chesapeake soft shell… or maybe all of them. I just dunno.

My favorite soft shell crab recipe is with pumpkin blossoms – Photo by QueerFish

But regardless, I will always have a soft spot for these little blue soft shell crabs.

Thanks for reading! Stay in touch!

2 thoughts on ““Oh Golly… Do I Eat The Whole Thing?!” – a hard look at soft shell crab”

    • Hey David! Thanks so much! Ima get to NOLA to visit you soon! Nothing would give me more pleasure! And so wanna get on your boat! Cannot wait! Thanks so much for your message!

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