BRUNSWICK, Maine — Canadian businessman Ron Howse boiled up a pot of European green crabs in a microwave Thursday afternoon and offered tastes of the sweet white flesh to reporters, fishermen and others gathered at a news conference in downtown Brunswick.
“If that’s not sweet, I don’t know what is,” proclaimed Howse, who hopes to market the invasive crabs — which are devastating Maine shellfish and eelgrass beds — as a delicacy to seafood brokers and large restaurant chains around the world.
Howse believes that if he can find a cost-effective way to put the crabs on tables worldwide, it will turn a burgeoning crisis for Maine shellfish harvesters into a lucrative business for himself and those who can provide him with what to date has been a coastal pest.
In Brunswick this week after visits to Lubec and Bangor, Howse, of Fredericton, New Brunswick-based Tidalwater Seafood Co., met with town and Brunswick Landing redevelopment officials to discuss the possibility of building a plant to process the crabs. He said he has discussed free trade zones and other tax policies with the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, and awaits more information from them.
Calls to the Maine DECD were not returned on Thursday.
“I think we’re very close” to a decision, Howse said Thursday.
While green crabs are typically too small to be picked for a profit, Howse said he is working with a company in China — he declined to name it — to patent a system of extracting and packaging the meat.
How would they be served?
Joseph Galleti, director of food services and nutrition for Tidalwater Seafood Co., said he favors green crab empanadas.
“The whole idea behind this company is to create a commercially viable product,” he said. “We want to create a product people are going to enjoy.
“Traditionally in most crab extraction systems, it really is a lot of hand picking,” Howse said. “We have exclusive use of a computer program machine that picks the crab, takes the meat out of the crab and it comes out of the extraction system bagged and ready for deep-freeze.”
Galleti, who also declined to further explain the extraction system, said, “Not everyone is going to get the meat as fast as we can.”
Shareholders have already invested in the project, but Howse declined to say what the total investment is to date, or how much he plans to inves.
Howse’s business plan projects 150 jobs in the Maine plant itself, with 550 additional “indirect” jobs such as fishermen, truckers and accountants.
The same plan also includes a new plant in Moncton, New Brunswick, to process alewives, shad, gaspereau and eel, he said, and the creation of another 150 jobs.
The location of the Maine plant will be determined by a number of factors, Howse said, including proximity to green crabs.
Lubec is attractive because of its shallow estuaries and “significant biomass of green crabs” reported by divers and other industry sources, but the cold water temperatures limit processing to warmer months. The softshell clam industry in Brunswick and Freeport areas has been devastated by green crabs over the last year, and warmer water would allow a year-round fishery.
On Thursday, Howse purchased five pounds of green crabs from Emily Bichrest, who fishes out of Cundy’s Harbor in Harpswell. He paid 50 cents a pound — the same price at which Harbor Fish in Portland buys rock crabs.
While the plant would be located in one community, “holding facilities” could be built in the other two towns and shipments would go through Bangor International Airport.
Depending on which community is chosen for the project, he said the plant could be “up and running by April 15.”
Darcie Couture, formerly of the Maine Department of Marine Resources and now a private consultant working with the town of Freeport to tackle the problems posed by green crabs, said Thursday that she looks forward to hearing more specifics about Howse’s business plan.
“Everybody in the region is very excited about any use for green crabs, but the economic driver is missing now,” she said. “We hope [Howse] is able to provide a little more information.”
Past efforts in Maine to find a market or economically feasible way to deal with green crabs have come up short. At a December 2013 conference on the marine pests, no one could offer any proven way to sell large amounts of them for enough money to make catching crabs worthwhile.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Brunswick Town Councilor Steve Walker said after Thursday’s crab tasting. “When I met him at the green crab summit, I thought it would be great to get them here at ground zero.”
But Walker acknowledged that the plan “seems a little fantastical. It seems hard for me to wrap my head around [the idea] that if there’s a market for them, somebody wouldn’t have found it. I’ve got to believe that if there’s a huge Asian market out there, we would have been approached by others.”