The scientific name for the blue crab, Callinectes sapidus, is Latin for “savory beautiful swimmer.” Talk about hitting a nail on the head. The decapod — or 10-legged — crab is native to the Gulf of Mexico and western Atlantic Ocean and, luckily for us, spends most of its life in the brackish waters of bays and estuaries.
There are few sea critters that capture a Mobilian’s heart, from cradle to grave, like the blue crab. When one scuttled across the wet sand, we, as children, scuttled after it. When the stars align and produce the soft-shell variety, we, as adults, can’t help but order up a few for the table (with a side of West Indies salad, of course). Learn what makes these homegrown bottom-feeders such darn savory, beautiful swimmers.
SURF AND TURF
The omnivorous blue crab feeds on just about everything it can find, dead or alive. This usually includes oysters, smaller crustaceans, snails, small fish, plants, carrion (animal flesh) and even smaller blue crabs. And you thought Mobilians had mastered the seafood buffet …
KNOW YOUR CRABMEAT
“Jumbo lump” is the premium grade crabmeat, consisting of whole lumps of meat from the two large muscles connected to the fins; “backfin” is a blend of jumbo lump and some broken body meat; “special” or “white” meat is made up of smaller pieces of body meat; “claw” meat is picked from the legs and has a stronger, sweeter flavor. Is it lunchtime yet?
A PINCH OF COLOR
The crab’s green-blue color comes from the interaction of a protein called alpha-crustacyanin with a red pigment called astaxanthin. During the cooking process, the heat breaks down the alpha-crustacyanin, leaving behind just the red pigment.
SHOW SOME SKIN
A blue crab’s shell does not expand, so it’s necessary for them to molt, or shed, their existing shell in order to produce a larger exoskeleton. After the outer shell splits, the new exoskeleton is soft for a short period of time, making the crab particularly vulnerable to predators looking for soft-shell crab. This includes you and your favorite Causeway restaurant.
ROW, ROW, ROW YOUR CRAB
Blue crabs can reach a shell width of 9 inches and are surprisingly good swimmers, with rear legs shaped like canoe paddles.
A Crabby History
A grumpy old man enters a seafood restaurant. “You serve crabs here?” he growls at a waitress. “Yes, sir. We serve everyone, ” she says. “Take a seat.”
- Of the 1, 200 known species of crab, more than 60 can be found in Alabama waters. However, the blue crab, eight species of which exist in the Gulf of Mexico, is Alabama’s only crab of commercial significance.
- Commercial crabbing in the Gulf was first reported around 1880, with fishermen using simple tools and crabbing methods such as drop nets and long-handled dip nets. The blue crab’s tendency to spoil quickly was a major hurdle for early fishermen, hindering industry growth for several decades.
- The most productive blue crab fisheries are located in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay, which has experienced a sharp decline in crab population due to overfishing and disease outbreaks. As a result, a significant portion of the Gulf’s blue crab catch is shipped to Maryland to meet the state’s constant demand.
- “You can find blue crab at any time of the year, but the peak season is the summer and into the fall, ” says Hunter Omainsky, marketing director at Wintzell’s Oyster House. “Soft-shell crab is typically seen more often in the spring.”
- Blue crabs play an important role in managing the populations of animals they prey on. Therefore, overfishing the crabby crawlers can have a far-reaching impact on the ecosystem. For this reason, crabbing is restricted in some areas of the Delta, creating a nursery for the decapods to mature before moving into the Bay, where they can be harvested.
Text by Breck Pappas