Driving down the road in central Virginia I spotted a fellow selling clams and crabs out of the back of his pickup. I bought a bag of little necks then lifted the lid on the cooler marked crabs.
Much to my surprise they were bright red. I immediately assumed they were steamed crabs. In fact, I asked the fellow if he had any live crabs, then I noticed they were moving. What I was looking at were live red crabs caught off the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Nova Scotia.
The Atlantic Deep Sea Red Crab (Chaceon quinquedens) lives in deep water ranging from 1,500 to 2000 feet. The water they like stays at about 38 degrees all the time. They average about 1-2 pounds which is good size in terms of Chesapeake Bay Blue crab sizes. The red crab has an orange-red color in the wild and spindly legs. They are bigger than the popular blue crabs living in the Chesapeake Bay. The red crab does not have swimming paddles like the blue crab. They can reach a maximum weight of 3.75 lbs. Unlike the blue crab that produces off spring in multiple years, the red crab produces off spring only once every two years. The red crab has a lifespan of up to fifteen years while blue crabs unusually do not live longer than three years.
Lobsterman were the first to bring up red crabs in the 1950s and were caught in traps through the 1960s. In 1964 Andreas Holmsen, professor of resource economics at the University of Rhode Island, conducted the first study of the crustacean. Commercial fishing go started in the early 1970s.
A 1974 survey conducted between offshore Maryland and eastern Georges Bank determined the standing crop to be an estimated 59 million pounds. Writing in the Chesapeake Quarterly, October 2015, David Strain interviewed crustacean biologist Bradley Stevens who observed of the red crab, “You can think of these elusive animals as Maryland’s other big crab. One of several related species of crustaceans that live in various deep stretches of the Atlantic, red crabs flank the edge of the continental shelf from Nova Scotia south to the Gulf of Mexico. Blue crabs are called swimming crabs because they can use their paddle-like rear legs to propel themselves through the water. But red crabs have no choice but to walk along the seafloor. Most live at greater depths than do the king crabs Stevens studied in Alaska, surviving in habitats that are “at the frontiers of our understanding of the oceans,” says Richard Wahle, a marine biologist at the University of Maine.
This sparse environment makes the Chesapeake Bay look like a spa: at these depths, there’s little to no light to navigate by, and water temperatures hover around 38 degrees Fahrenheit. The red crabs scuttle floor at depths of from 600 feet to a mile deep. Sustenance can be hard to come by, too, says Wahle, who has also studied red crabs.” Like other deep-sea animals, these crustaceans often depend on food that sinks down from the surface. The carcasses of dead whales, for example, serve up a nutrition bonanza that the crabs can sniff out from long distances away. ‘They’re very tuned into their chemical environment,’ he says. ‘They can hone in on these sources of food like oases in the desert’.”
It is very possible, if you have eaten Carb Alfred at one of the Red Lobster restaurants that you may have eaten red crab. In the early years of his business Captain John Williams, who is also a crustacean biologist and owner of the Atlantic Red Crab Company sold red crab to Red Lobster Restaurant chain until 2008 for use in their making Crab Alfredo.
One of his clients ships 3000 pounds of red crab to Asia weekly in specially equipped airplanes that keep them in special tanks. Asians are found of such dishes as Cua Rang Muoi and Chili crab..
Atlantic red crabs can live two to three weeks if held in properly aerated tanks in 38- to 48-degree water. On ice, their shelf life is three to four days before black spots start to appear on their bodies, something that doesn’t happen to blue crabs.
William’s company operates for specially equipped red crab harvesting boats. Three run out of New Bedford, Massachusetts while the other, the Hannah Boden, runs out of Newport News. The Hannah Boden was featured in the reality TV show “Deadliest Catch” where it braved eight foot waves in the bearing sea. The four boats fish deep sea habitats of the coast of Maryland, New England and the Mid-Atlantic Bight. The boats go out for about ten days at a time and are equipped with six hundred four-foot-high traps that are round in comparison to traps used for blue crabs The crabs are hauled live into onboard tanks filled with 38-degree water. Once on shore, they are either processed immediately or held live in tanks. Williams said “We’re the first fishery on the East Coast to be Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified sustainable, separating us from the cheap imports from all over the world. There is no question that sustainability is the wave of our future.”
The equipment used for red crab is similar to that used for the king crabs. Crews drop line of 150 traps similar too but larger than those used to catch blue crab. The traps are placed on the ocean floor in roughly 2000 feet of water where the red crab can crawl right in. It is estimated that William’s boat brings in three million pounds of red crab every year with a value of three million dollars. Compared to the blue crab harvest in Maryland of about fifty million dollars a year, red crab is a minor market.
This writer has cooked and enjoyed red crab caught off the Virginia Coast. The meat is somewhat sweeter and there is more of it on a red crab compared to a blue crab. Chefs experienced with red crabs say that unlike blue crabs, that can be steamed whole and picked clean once cooked, Atlantic red crabs are better if cleaned before steamed. Because the bodies are bigger, steaming them whole tends to overcook the claw meat.
At the AtlanticRed Crab Company’s plant in New Bedford Massachusetts, the fresh red crabs are sent either to the plant’s cooler, which is capable of holding 75,000 pounds of live crabs at 38°F until they are needed for processing, or directly to the processing line. On the processing line, workers quickly break the crabs in half at the underbelly area, separating the claw/leg section from the body shell. Then at the production line workers separate the claw from the leg/shoulders. On yet another production, workers lightly score the claws in three places – a “triple score” – to make it easier to snap the shell. These partially processed crab sections are then put into totes for transportation to the new plant for cooking. Once at the cooking plant, the various crab sections go into what is called the “low risk area” to be held in a cooler until it’s time for cooking. Workers are assigned a designation as “Low-risk” and “high-risk” workers. This is an important way to eliminate cross contamination by workers going from one area to another. They wear different jackets and work in different areas of the plant. Workers cannot go into the other area without first fully re-sanitizing and donning the correct jacket, blue for high risk, white for low. Blue-coated workers deal directly with the finished product and wear hairnets and surgical gloves.
To cook the crabs, the carb sections are put into a large stainless steel container where they are cooked for 11 minutes at 212°F. The cooker holds two 328-pound containers at a time and can cook 3,000 pounds of crab per hour. Claws are cooked separately from “clusters,” which are the shoulder/leg sections. The cooking is carefully controlled, an alarm sounds when the cooking is finished. The crab sections are then removed from the cooker and placed into a large ambient water tank for 15 minutes to bring the temperature of the cooked meat down to 75°F. Once cooled down, the crab sections are placed into a second large “chiller” tank where the meat is brought down to 32°F. This takes about 25 minutes. To maintain quality processing, each step is carefully monitored. Once cooked, they are sent to the various sections. Some go to the fresh line for processing/packaging or to the brine tank for freezing into 40-pound cases of shoulder/leg sections. The product that is to be fresh, frozen goes to the brine tank is held at 0°F. In addition to brine freezing, the plant also has a nitrogen tunnel capable of flash freezing crab products to –140°F in minutes.
Red crabs are a different and interesting version of the blue crab revered for decades all up and down the east coast. Red crabs are a healthy, low-fat, high-protein, delicious food, seafood. They are a great alternative to the delicious favorite, blue crabs. Habits are hard to change, but it is worth the effort because the red crab tastes a lot like lobster. However, speaking from my own experience as an amateur cook and one who would rather eat crab than filet mignon, this writer would say; red crabs are a different and delicious treat worth trying. They are far more delicate than blue crabs and they don’t travel well. I found that within a day or less they develop brown spots. I have come to the conclusion that, unless you buy them fresh and cook them the same day, fresh frozen red crabs are the way to go. They are being marked by the Atlantic Red Crab Company
For more information about the red crabs John Williams and his company, Atlantic Red Crab Company, visit their website at www.atlanticredcrab.com