It’s no surprise to my friends and family, and even to my loyal readers, that I love seafood of all descriptions and I am always in search of different types of fresh sources. On a recent road trip with my brother Ken, we looked for “seafood” in northwestern Georgia and did manage to find some fresh-caught trout to eat at a restaurant beside the Nantahala River. It was perfect locally sourced wild fish, but not from the sea. Here in the United States, the term seafood applies to any aquatic animal, whether it lives in freshwater or the ocean. So, seafood it is. Delicious.
On the way home we sought a place for lunch and while my brother took his turn at the wheel I happily Googled seafood restaurants along our route and came up with a perfect choice. Cajun Seafood Express in Tifton, Georgia was known for its steamed crabs and shrimp and got good reviews on Google. It sounded good to me, so we set our GPS and hungrily looked forward to our upcoming lunch.
We ordered one-half pound of blue crabs and another one-half pound of shrimp and I was all set for a fantastic and messy seafood feast. But wait! After I ate the claws from my crabs, I looked more closely at the crab legs left on the plate. These were not blue crabs! Unlike the blue crabs I know and love these crab legs had spots on them. When I questioned the restaurant owner, in broken hard-to-understand English he said, “Yes, yes, blue crabs!!!!” and to quiet me he gave us some complimentary king crab legs. But I wasn’t appeased. Much to my brother’s annoyance I couldn’t get these “blue crabs” out of my mind, and out of my conversation, for the next 100 miles.
At home, I did some investigation of the matter and what I learned shocked me, and maybe will shock you too. The blue crabs we have locally here in Florida and in coastal areas north, to the Chesapeake Bay, are Callinectes sapidus, a local delicacy that required some work to eat but the taste is well worth it, at least to me. Up in the Washington/Baltimore area crab houses serving fresh steamed blue crabs that you pick yourself on a table covered with newspaper is a local attraction. But during the closed season for the crab fishery here, blue crabs are imported from Florida and other coastal states instead. They are still the blue crabs that I know, and none have spots on their legs.
But there is a very different story about crab meat sold in cans even from one of the biggest crab producers in the United States, Phillips Foods Inc. based in Maryland. This company made its mark selling local Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, but over the years the contents of their pasteurized cans have become something else entirely. Now the crab meat is from Asian swimming crabs (Portunus armatus) that are found in the waters around much of Southeast Asia. Phillips Foods now has crab processing operations in Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere too. Sadly, this shift was necessary as the supply of our native blue crabs has declined over the years due to environmental changes and overfishing. Now yearly studies of crab populations in the United States are conducted and fishing regulations are set accordingly to preserve this resource. But the signs are here that the swimming blue crabs from Asia are already declining too. Unlike in the United States, there are few enforced fishing regulations in Southeast Asia and the experts at Phillips are already seeing smaller crabs, a sure sign of declining populations.
So, the crabs I encountered at Cajun Seafood Express were indeed blue crabs, but the Asian variety. And these crabs were imported already cleaned and cooked, and just heated up in the restaurant, a sorry business for sure and nothing like the fresh steamed blue crabs I love and expected. Back at home again as soon as I could I went up to Kingsland, Georgia to buy the “real thing” — fresh caught blue crabs steamed and cleaned by Giovanni at M&A’s Seafood Market. Ah, order was restored in my life again.
And Ken, compelled by my obsessive talk about blue crabs, found a Reuters news article on August 7 that reported that now our beloved blue crabs here in the Western Hemisphere (Callinectes) are becoming a problem in Italy where they have spread, due possibly to larva in bilge water. Italy is the biggest producer of aquaculture clams for the European market and this role is now in jeopardy with one fishing cooperative reporting that as many as 12 tons of crabs were being caught every day without much effect on the crab population. The government of Italy is investing 2.9 million euros ($3.2 million) to stem the crab population. Seems like it’s time for Italy to embrace this delicacy and invite Phillips Inc. to Italy to put them in cans for export.
My seafood search in Georgia sure led Ken and me down a path we never expected, and now you, too. Thanks for coming along for the ride.
Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]