The Complete Sustainable Crab Eaters Guide

The Complete Sustainable Crab Eaters Guide

Everything you need to know about eating crab sustainably.

Crab is awesome. When it comes to showstopping shellfish – nothing beats it. It’s sweet and clean to taste. Its subtle flavour is wonderful sauced and oriental spiced, in salads, sandwiches or fried into patties. Better still, crab should be enjoyed on its own, boiled fresh and then picked, prized, and sucked from its shell. 

Types of crab 

There are a number of crab species living just off British shores, some are soft and velvety, some prickly with unshaved stubble, others are emerald-green, and some have long catwalk model legs thinner than a piece of sewing thread.

But, for gourmands among us, there are only two of note: the brown crab and the spider crab.

1. What is a Brown Crab (Cancer pagurus)?

Brown crab, or edible crab as it’s sometimes known, are easily indefinable for their freshly baked pasty-shaped carapace and their ink-black tipped claws. 

A brown crab is a delicious thing. It has no one uniform meat but instead contains within it several, all delicious textures, and flavours. There’s the rich, nutty, creamy brown meat that is best scrapped out with the handle of a teaspoon from the deep crevices of the carapace. By contrast, there’s the strands of sweet, almost sea-weedy white meat that can be dug out of the leg sockets and body. Then there’s the rich seam of fresh-tasting, short-grained meat inside the claws, tipped by another texture altogether of compressed, almost pâté-like meat at the very tip of each claw. Eating a brown crab is an adventure, which is exactly why we like to separate the various experiences when we sell our crab meat (brown meat, white meat, claw meat) as it allows you to appreciate the universe of textures and flavours this incredible species has to offer.

Brown crabs can be caught on every coastline around the UK. If allowed to, they can grow to fantastic sizes, the biggest on record was caught locally to us near Brixham, measuring in at an astonishing 26.7 cm across the carapace. Brown crabs have huge heavy-duty claws that could crush your finger into two pieces, the Churchill tank of the deeps, and a species we’re exceptionally lucky to have access to.  

2. What is a Common Spider Crab (Maja brachydactyla)?

It has long been thought that the common spider crab that we find here in the UK is Maja squiando spider crab native to the Mediterranean. It was hypothesised that climate change and warmer oceans were encouraging this foreign crustacean to march further north in search of our cooler shores. Whole books have been written, articles published, about the mass migration of the Maia squiando into the UK, and what this will mean for our British crab species.

It turns out, this is all nonsense. A review of the species complex was able to differentiate between specimens from the Mediterranean Sea and those from the Atlantic Ocean and concluded that the Atlantic specimens were a separate species altogether. The spider crabs living on our shores are not foreign invaders at all, but instead native residents.

This fact, however, may or may not fill you with joy, as there is certainly something very alien about the spider crab. Long, mechanical legs, and spiky armoured bodies they’re more like something out of Mad Max. What’s more the spider crab is a master of disguise. Between the razor-sharp peaks and spines along its armoured carapace is a spongy carpet, on which a spider crab will grow its own sea-weed wig. Akin to the ghillie suit worn by an SAS sniper, this wig acts as the perfect camouflage allowing the spider crab to both hide from its predators, but also sneak up on its prey. Any unsuspecting fish fry, or sea snail, would be forgiven for thinking the seaweedy lump inching towards them was no more than just another spiny boulder.

Chefs, fishermen, food critics, food servers, food writers, food eaters and everyone in between have argued for millennia about which tastes better: a brown crab, or a spider crab. When early humans plucked crabs out of the warm rock pools of the Eritrean coast, they probably debated it then. In truth, they’re both utterly delicious, and we’d be exceedingly happy to be served up either. While a spider may not offer as many textures as its cousin the brown crab, their white flesh is noticeably sweeter. While our crab tastebuds are certainly on the rise here in the UK, it seems we’ve only really developed a penchant for brown crabs, while 95% of our spider crab catch is still sent abroad. Why this is, we don’t know. But whenever we get an opportunity to get our hands on some, we make an added effort to celebrate the much under-loved spider crab on our menus and in our Online Seafood Market.

How are crabs caught?  

If you stroll along the harbour here in Brixham on any day of summer, the breakwater will be crawling with children, their sticky ice cream-stained hands carefully working tiny drop-nets baited with fat wedges of smoky bacon or the end of a saveloy. From the oily-black harbour water, they’ll pull great hauls of clickety-clackety shore crabs, to add to their bucket-aquarium only to finally be liberated at the end of the day by mum or dad.

Commercially crabs are caught with pots, of which there are two key kinds the conical, or ink well, and the parlour pot. 

Originally made of hazel basketwork, or hemp twine, now of heavy-duty nylon mesh, a conical pot has a cone-shaped design, typically with a wide base and a narrow top allowing crabs to easily enter but making it difficult for them to escape.

A parlour pot is slightly more complex, in that they consist of two ‘rooms’ – a bait room and a holding room. After feeding in the bait room, the crab climbs a mesh ramp, assuming it’s the easy route out of the pot. But the ramp only leads to the parlour, from which there is no exit. 

Parlour pots are better at keeping crabs, which will eventually find their way out of the traditional conical pot. If stormy weather prevents a crabber from checking his or her pots for a few days, the conical will usually be stripped clean of bait and empty, whereas the parlour will hold their catch indefinitely.

Pot bait is one of life’s truly disgusting substances. Usually, a mix of old fish frames, heads, tails, guts, and bones, that is then left out in the sunshine to really work up an other-worldly stench.

Our unique location, directly on the Brixham quayside, has meant we’ve been able to build a special relationship with our local crabbers. Whenever you buy a fillet, prepared and oven ready, from our Online Seafood Market, you can be sure that unless we’ve used the fish’s ‘frame’ (head, tail, bones) to make stock for the restaurants, it’ll instead be put to good use in a crabber’s pot somewhere in the depths of the Brixham swash. When we say we’re zero waste – we truly mean it!

 Is crab fishing sustainable?

As early as 1875, the marine scientist Frank Buckland decided to make a study of the Cromer crab fishery, perhaps Britain’s most famous crab fishery. At the time, the crab population was in steep decline, with catches falling rapidly.

Buckland blamed overfishing of immature crabs, which were caught, crushed, and used for whelk bait. He calculated that up to three-quarters of a million juvenile crabs were being removed from the fishery each month, with catastrophic consequences. As a result of his findings, Parliament passed the 1876 Crab and Lobster Fisheries Norfolk Act, introducing a minimum size for crabs and forbidding the sale of ‘berried’ (egg-laden) females.

The next year this law was extended to the whole of England and Wales, and as a result, has stood the UK crab population in excellent stead.

Even today, the MSC rank the UK’s various crab fisheries as sustainable, with only some suggestions for improvement. Crab fishing is more like farming. Fishermen are encouraged to return a portion of their catch to the sea, as it will ensure a sustainable livelihood. On some days, in the early summer especially, it is not unusual for a crab boat to return as much as 80 per cent of its catch. Crabs may be returned to the sea alive for any of three reasons: if they’re below the minimum landing size if they’re ‘berried’, or if they’re ‘soft’. 

Are crabs under threat?

The real danger to our crab population is indeed not crab fishermen, but a variety of other external threats.

Overwintering ovigerous females (basically, pregnant mamas) are particularly vulnerable, which in turn can threaten the future stability of the fishery. Crab can be a bycatch of a variety of different fishing methods, the impact of which is still not fully realised.

Meanwhile, last year a study in the Northeast of England, pointed to industrial chemicals in our rivers and seas as a key killer of our crab populations. Although it is yet to be peer-reviewed, the study's early report said tests found pyridine, which is used as an anti-corrosion treatment in marine infrastructure, was "highly toxic" to crabs "even at low levels" and caused twitching and paralysis before death.

Does that mean we shouldn’t eat crab?

Absolutely not. The careful monitoring of our crab populations has been going on since the nineteen hundreds – and probably even before! What we have to make sure of is that we are eating the right crab. That means knowing exactly where your crab was caught, and when. Crab, once picked and left in the fridge will soon start to lose its dramatic flavour. This is a waste of what is such an exceptional species. It’s for that reason we started Shellfish Wednesdays, the thought process being that by championing a single day of the week we ensure that the crab we serve is boiled and picked fresh and sent out when it’s at its absolute best. At times when the weather or seasons mean we’re unable to get any crab, that’s just tough. Rather than trying to fob off some long-life pasteurised, second-rate product, we’ll instead all just have to wait – but oh will it be worth it!