An experiment to farm soft-shell crabs in North Carolina ponds could augment declining wild stocks and lead to having plenty of the delicacy fresh almost year round.
Scientists from North Carolina and Mississippi will work together in a three-year venture to raise blue crabs and harvest them for the lucrative soft-shell market.
Fresh soft crabs flood the market typically in May and June, at the height of molting season.
A $339,239 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will fund the project, managed by Sea Grant programs in both states. The University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Lab will lead the effort and lend expertise.
"Our goal is to learn more about this technology and bring it to North Carolina," Chuck Weirich, North Carolina Sea Grant marine aquaculture specialist. "This could take the pressure off the wild crabs."
It would be state's first effort at raising crabs, he said. Fish farming has been going on for decades.
As part of the test, Thomas Seafood in Beaufort will hatch eggs from wild-caught females and raise baby crabs in two quarter-acre ponds, feeding them regularly, keeping the water aerated and creating the best of conditions. Weirich will monitor factors such as costs, how long it takes to raise them and mortality rate. If it works well the first year or so, the company will build two more ponds.
"We would like this to turn into something where we can keep crabbing all year round," said Clay Allen, vice president of Thomas Seafood.
The crabs will grow at the same rate under controlled conditions of the ponds, always providing a plentiful supply, he said. One problem could be that crabs tend to eat each other. But if they are fed regularly and grow at the same rate, they would not need to eat a fellow crab, Allen said.
Wild blue crabs mature at approximately 12 to 18 months and molt several times over their average lifespan of three years.
Crab fishing is not easy work. Typically, fishermen set dozens or hundreds of box-like, wire traps called crab pots in the sounds along the coast. They sit on the bottom with bait inside. Crabbers check and empty each pot daily sometimes in rough weather.
Molting crabs show up in largest numbers in May and June as the water warms. Fishermen take the catch back home where they place it in long trays constantly replenished with fresh water where the crabs can finish molting. Newly shedded crab must be put on ice immediately before the shell hardens again. It's often a 24-hour marathon over several days.
Fried soft-shell crabs are one the most popular dishes served in most Outer Banks restaurants. Instead of painstakingly cracking shells for morsels of meat, the entire crab can be eaten.
Hard crabs have historically led the seafood industry in North Carolina, but harvests are in rapid decline. Watermen caught 18 million pounds of hard crabs in 2017, the least amount in 40 years.
Soft-shell crabs are worth about twice as much to fishermen. Hard crabs earned $17.7 million at the dock in 2017, just below $1 a pound. The 2017 peeler harvest of 776,234 pounds was worth $1.6 million, or more than $2 a pound.
The peeler crabs catch was the most since 2005 when it surpassed 1 million pounds, but it remains low historically. Leading up to 2005, the harvest regularly reached beyond or near 1 million pounds.