No. 64–That Time of the Year

Yes, it’s that time of year again. The marsh is greening, days are growing longer, and seafood epicures find themselves in high anticipation of an annual spring treat, soft-shell crab.

It’s now been three years since this tasty topic was covered herein. The following is an edit and update of the original “Spring Delicacy” piece as a refresher for longtime followers of this column and as initial edification for those who have joined us since.

There are soft shell crabs in local waters year round because crabs are growing and molting virtually throughout the year. Molting activity slows down considerably in the winter months since, as with all cold blooded species, the crab’s metabolism and consumption of food drop with the water temperature. During those months our tidal creeks and rivers are essentially devoid of blue crabs as they have moved to the deeper holes in the sounds and to near shore waters.

This is also the time females mated in the spring spawn off shore. While some few may spawn a second time, the majority of spawning females die soon after their offspring hatch and from time to time their lifeless bodies will litter winter beaches.

The warming waters of spring stir the juices of the over wintering males and immature females leading to their repopulation of the shallows. Spring also heralds the migration of the next generation from off shore hatching grounds to the estuarine nursery. As with their white and brown shrimp distant cousins, blue crab larvae require full ocean salinity to survive.

Though crab mating occurs throughout the warm water months, due to the fact that individuals within the overall population are in different stages of development over the course of a year, the most intense activity takes place over a relatively few weeks in April and May.

Crabs are able to mate only after the female has molted from her immature to her mature stage and then only during a small time window before her new exoskeleton begins to harden. You may have observed double decked crabs. The one on top is the male and the pair either already have mated or are waiting to do so.

Male crabs release pheromones which serve as an attractant to females which are approaching their immature to mature molt. A female will follow the current borne scent trail to her prospective mate who, after a ritual dance, will take his position atop to establish his preeminence should a potential rival happen along. He will remain with her thus until her molt begins at which point dismounts with claws at the ready to protect his interest.

Once free of her old shell, mating takes place belly to belly with the male depositing spermatophore (a packet or packets of sperm) within her. Upon completion of the act the male again cradles her in a protective embrace and will remain on guard for the two days it takes for the female’s new exoskeleton to harden. They then go their separate ways.

Point of fact: Virtually all soft shell crabs consumed by humans are female. During the short commercial season the wily crabbers place big healthy male crabs in the bait compartment of crab pots assuring the catch will be exclusively females that will be molting before long. The harvested crabs are then sold to area processors.

Known as peelers because they will soon be “peeling” out of their old exoskeletons, they are placed in peeler tanks where they are observed twenty-four hours a day. Upon molting the “softies” are moved to a holding tank for a brief period where they swell to their larger size. They are then removed from the water which stops the hardening process. They are then refrigerated which puts the creature into stasis and aree ready for packing and shipping. That’s why, as long as the product remains refrigerated, they can serve soft-shell crab in Denver or Detroit.

We invite you to join us for the 6th Annual Soft-Shell Crab Festival sponsored by the Old Village Association of Port Royal on April 18th. Festivities are Noon to 5:00 on Paris Ave. You’re also invited to visit the newly renovated Lowcountry Estuarium on the corner of 14th St. and Paris Ave.

Also, though time and place have not been determined as of deadline, Earth Day Beaufort County will be celebrated a week later on the 25th and plans are in the works for an inaugural Critter Fest – Celebrating Creatures of the Estuary at the Estuarium on May 30th.