They may be a pain to eat, but they are well worth it. They are also yet another of the often-overlooked delicious types of seafood caught locally. They’re also mighty strong, as I discovered many years ago when I got pinched so hard that I felt it through an insulated fishing glove.

I was in the midst of banding a lobster after I’d measured them as a part of a population study when a rock crab that had come up in the trap latched onto my index finger with a mighty clamp. I shook my hand out over the size, trying to get him to drop off when the lobstermen I was working with came over and snapped him off, grabbing his body and leaving the now-relaxed claw in the palm of my glove. My reward was to take that crab, the offending claw, and several others home for dinner.  

But, perhaps the crab got the last word after all as I painstakingly cracked and picked out the meat from more than a dozen claws and ended up with enough meat for about two crab cakes. I later learned that, with a bit more patience, I could have gotten some nice chunks of meat out of the bodies as well. Regardless, I have a great appreciation for the cost of already picked crab meat as well as those that are deft pickers.  

Atlantic rock crabs (Cancer irroratus) are the most commercially harvested crab in Maine’s coastal waters. Rock crabs are often misidentified as Jonah Crabs, their larger offshore cousins, but Jonah crabs have distinctly black-tipped claws.

They’re also a bit bigger, with shells up to 8 1/2  inches across, versus rock crabs which only get to be about 5 inches wide. The “irroratus” in the rock crab’s scientific name is Latin for speckled, describing their reddish or pink speckled shells

They are also known as shore crabs, peekytoe crabs, bay crabs, mud crabs, eel grass crabs or limber leg bay crabs. Many of these names point to the fact that they don’t just live in the rocks, but rather have a rather wide variety of habitats. They also have a wide range – not just geographically, stretching from Iceland down to South Carolina, but also in depth, finding hidey holes down to 2600 feet deep.

Much like lobsters, their decapod (10 legged) cousins, they are also quite hardy and are scavengers of just about any food source in the water. Also, like lobsters, they have hairy legs that help them to sense prey in the water, and antennae they use to feel their way around in addition to their googly black eyes that sit atop eye stalks that come out a bit from their shells. One big difference, however, is their mobility. Without a tail to flip, they aren’t the fastest. Even crawling, rock crabs don’t move around a whole lot, burdened as they are by their heavy front claws.    

Atlantic rock crabs often come up as unintentional, or non-target, catch in lobster traps. A commercial lobster license allows fishermen to also catch rock crabs, as does a recreational license. This is logical since they so often appear in lobster traps.  Some fishermen, however, target them specifically, configuring a trap a bit differently than a lobster trap. They often take out the netting inside the trap and put entrances to the traps on top rather than on the sides so that the crabs can crawl up the side of the trap and drop in, seeking the bait inside. 

One particularly nice thing about the rock crab fishery is that occurs year-round, a rarity in the fishing world. Another positive is that fishermen don’t have to go too far from shore to find them. This is an advantage during the winter when stormy seas can make getting offshore both dangerous and expensive.  

I happen to love to eat rock crab meat and am happy to buy it picked – nearly all the time. But, if you’re lucky enough to find live local crabs and cook them yourself, picking out the meat can be a fun interactive meal. Find a nice spot outside where you can make a mess, rope in a crew of pickers, get some decent tools (lobster tools will do), and crack them open to pick out the juicy morsels. You can eat them right there with a squeeze of lemon. It’s a fun way to learn a little bit about their anatomy and to appreciate the work that goes into that small container of crab meat you might otherwise easily pick up at a local seafood shop.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: