Volume 13, Issue 37 ~ September 15 - 21, 2005
Crab Catch
by M.L. Faunce

Female Crabs: To Eat or Not to Eat
Life cycle and taste belie traditional wisdom

Female crabs are plentiful in fall, but I’ve known recreational crabbers who won’t keep a female crab and many a consumer who won’t buy female crabs. “Marylanders don’t eat female crabs because they remember when there was a moratorium on catching them,” says Jackie Livingston of Bowie, whose family has been crabbing in the area for generations. Is abstinence helping preserve the species?

Tommy Zinn, a commercial crabber from Lusby puts the subject in perspective. “You buy $20 crab cakes at a restaurant, and there’s a good chance that meat came from a female crab. Females are the backbone of the crab-picking market. Some people prefer not to eat them, but that’s not hurting the stock.” he says. “Water quality is a more important matter than not keeping females.”

Crabber Steve Smith of Fairhaven agrees. “The thing to remember about crabs,” he says, “is they have a two-year life cycle. Once the female is mature, she won’t shed again.”

Smith agrees about water quality, but indicts his own profession. “Crabbers are the biggest impediment to the crab population,” he says.

Differing regulations by state have also long been an issue. “We don’t keep sponge crabs in Maryland, but in Virginia they dredge egg-bearing females all winter,” he says.

Here’s a primer if you’re rusty on the female crab reproductive cycle. Near the end of two years, bright red tips on the claws signal sexual maturity in females. That’s when the sook, as sexually mature females are called, will shed for the last time. In the soft-shell phase, the male will cradle and guard the female, mating only after this final molt. Some crabs will spawn prior to winter; some the following spring.

As waters chill, the mature female travels south and burrows into the mud until spring. Fertilized eggs develop in her abdomen, protruding from her apron as a bright orange spongy mass. With the warming waters of spring, the female releases hundreds of thousands of eggs in the higher-salinity waters at the mouth of the Chesapeake. As larvae riding the tide and currents, most will become food for fish, but a minuscule number will survive to crabhood.

Zinn tells us why we can indulge: “Female crabs only lay their eggs once. They won’t shed again and are going to die,” he says.

Taste, too, might persuade you to branch out. Barbara Schnaitman of Wye Landing Boat Rentals says her “Asian customers prefer females. They’re tastier, fat and full in the fall.” Many who prefer female crabs say they tend to be sweeter. Commercial crabber Smith says he ate female crabs last fall and was “impressed at the sweetness.”

Female crabs are cheap and plentiful in fall. If you’re ready to change your crab-eating habits, check prices and supply this fall when females are fat, full and sweet.

For females, this week you’ll pay:

  • Magothy Seafood, Arnold ~ Mixed: $10 the dozen
  • Shoreline Seafood, Gambrills ~ Mixed: $15.50 the dozen; 3 dozen for $45
  • Abner’s Crab House Restaurant, Chesapeake Beach ~ $18 the dozen 
  • Mel’s Crabs of Prince Frederick ~ On-line special: $10 for three dozen, plus a dozen free with Internet coupon: www.melscrabs.com

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