A Canadian businessman says he has a solution to the population explosion of green crabs, which are ravaging Maine’s valuable shellfish industry: Put the crabs on menus around the world.
“We are going to take that invasive species and turn it into gold,” said Ron Howse, president and CEO of the Tidalwater Seafood Co., based in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
Howse has scheduled a news conference for 2 p.m. Thursday at Brunswick Town Hall to lay out his plan to process green crabs in Maine and market the meat and live crabs to customers in Japan, Korea, China, Spain and Portugal. He said he’ll boil some crabs and offer samples of the meat – which he said has a sweet taste – at the news conference.
Howse, who has no background in the seafood industry, said Asian and European consumers will pay good money for green crabs, which are pests in Maine because they eat clams and mussels, steal bait from lobster traps, destroy eelgrass beds and damage salt marshes.
Howse, 65, said he’s looking at opening a processing plant in the Brunswick or Bangor area to pick the meat from green crabs, and may set up holding facilities along the Maine coast. He said there’s also a significant market for live crabs, which could be shipped to Asia and Europe on flights from the Bangor International Airport.
Howse said there’s enough money to finance the business plan if he gets some financial support from community development groups in the state. He said he has significant private funds available, but he wouldn’t provide details about the amount of money he has or the amount he would need to raise.
Clam diggers and marine resource managers are cautiously optimistic that Howse has come up with a workable business solution, something that would be remarkable because all other attempts have failed.
The crabs have no commercial value now, in part because their bodies are so small that the meat can’t be removed efficiently. Some composting companies will take the crabs, but they won’t pay for them. Recent attempts to create a market for them as bait or cat food have gone nowhere.
Clam diggers hope Howse’s plan will work, but still have a “wait-and-see” attitude, said Daniel Devereaux, who manages the clam flats in Brunswick as the town’s marine warden.
“I have eaten them,” he said. “They are great-tasting. You’ve just got to eat 300 of them.”
If nothing is done to reduce the green crab population, clam diggers will be out of business in two years, said Steve Follette, 67, a clam digger who co-chairs the Frenchman Bay Regional Shellfish Conservation Committee in Down East Maine.
“It’s going to give everyone an incentive to trap them,” he said of Howse’s plan. “If you make your living out of the sea, you would be stupid not to.”
An adult European green crab is typically about 2½ inches long. It is distinguished from other crabs by five pointed spines on the outside of each eye and three small, rounded spines between the eyes.
The crabs arrived in Maine waters nearly 100 years ago, and their population goes through boom-and-bust cycles, said Denis Nault, supervisor of the shellfish management program at the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
He said the population is now at the highest level the state has ever seen, and Casco Bay is being hit the hardest.
Clam diggers Down East expect the population boom will move up the coast and strike their mud flats next year, Follette said.
“It’s a wave that is unbelievable. It’s like a science fiction movie,” he said.
In preparation for the dredging of Portland Harbor, crews have been trapping and moving lobsters this winter. Over a one-month period that ended Jan. 27, they captured 28,219 green crabs in the process.
They have been killing the crabs and dumping their bodies at sea. Howse said he plans to buy 80 pounds from the crews on Thursday. He has been paying harvesters 50 cents a pound.
Nault said attempts to create a commercial fishery for green crabs and use them for cat food or bait have failed because the prices are too low to justify the cost of harvesting, processing and transportation. Marketing the crabs as food for people has a better chance of success because it would increase the value.
He said the state issues permits to towns for crab eradication efforts, and the state would be able to issue more permits if there were a viable commercial fishery. One issue is that the traps must be designed so that fishermen catch crabs, and not juvenile lobsters.
With green crabs, Nault said, overharvesting won’t be a problem.
“You are not going to eliminate this critter,” he said.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: