PORTLAND, Maine — European green crabs have scurried around coastal waters off Maine since they first hitchhiked here on ships in the 1800s, but only in the past few years have the invasive crustaceans begun to devour the softshell clam industry and decimate delicate eelgrass habitat.
And as harvesters and scientists have scurried to find a solution to the invasion, a number of uses for the crabs have been floated — extracting the meat in China, composting, and even processing the creatures into cat food.
But Portland restaurateur Sam Hayward of Fore Street Restaurant, who in 2004 was named Best Chef Northeast by the James Beard Foundation and in 2011 won the the Chef’s Collaborative Sustainer of the Year award, on Monday shared a simple recipe he learned from a fellow chef to transform the crustaceans into “a sandy, seafoody deliciousness.”
One recent summer, Hayward worked with chef Evan Mallett of Black Trumpet in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at “Take a Bite Out of Appledore: An Eco-Culinary Retreat” held on the Isles of Shoals.
One night, after “foraging the intertidal zone,” Mallett debuted the crabs, deep fried and “a little bit like croutons,” Hayward said.
“Get a pot of oil — I’m not sure what oil we used, I think it was olive — and get it up to 340, 345 degrees, as if for deep frying,” Hayward said. “Then drop them in for a few minutes until they’re crisped up.”
“Toss a handful on top of a salad,” he said. “They sort of dissolve into a sandy, seafoody deliciousness.”
In 2014, the battle against the “voracious army” of crabs prompted a Maine College of Art student, working with Maine scientists, to create an educational, animated video short, “ Attack of the Green Crabs.”
“Unfortunately, one survey in Brunswick found that 40 percent of the clams have disappeared since 2011,” the video states. “With crabs rapidly gobbling up young clams, in two to three years there may not be any clams left to harvest in many places. Some researchers now worry that the ravenous crustacean may someday get a hankering for the state’s most prized fishery, the lobster.”
In fact, during the past five years, Maine’s softshell clam landings have steadily declined from 11 million pounds in 2012 to 7.3 million in 2016, according to Department of Marine Resources statistics.
“The response out at the island was really quite positive,” Hayward continued. “The difficulty will be that it’s pretty hard to find people to go out and harvest them.”
But finding enough green crabs may not be so difficult in Maine, and the need for a solution may be greater than ever.
David Hunter of Quahog Bay Conservancy, knows how to deliver plenty of green crabs. As part of the conservancy’s mission, in 2014 the Harpswell-based organization caught and composted about 10,000 pounds of green crabs, Hunter said Monday. The following two years, they trapped about 5,000 pounds each.
Armed with that information, Hayward said he has yet to try the crabs out at Fore Street, but he thinks his chefs, and the public, might be interested.
“Like anything else, we’d give them a try with the public,” he said. “The difficulties, like with any new food, would be how to introduce them to the public, how to introduce them to the cooks who already have a very large prep load … but I think they would be pretty interested.”
Mallett did not return a phone call on Monday.