New Yorkers and blue-claw crabs (Callinectes sapidus) just don’t seem to meet up all that much. Even though this olive color crab with sky-blue tinted claws is one of the most heavily harvested sea creatures on the planet, prized by people for their sweet, tender meat. Up close contact with a live crab for countless residents around New York Harbor is unusual.
Certainly crabbing in local waters is a popular summer activity for some, but for most urbane folks around the city interactions with a crab comes from a crustaceous meal or possibly seeing some live crabs crawling around inside a wooden basket or a cardboard box in front of a Chinatown market. Walking through the streets of Chinatown, one can see lots of food sitting outside shops, and some of it’s still alive including blue-claw crabs.
It’s difficult to say for sure where all these blue crabs originated from since each retailer or restaurant owner makes their own decision largely dependent on price and availability. It’s safe to say, though, that some measure of blue crabs you have eaten did not originate in the renowned waters of Chesapeake Bay, but are locally harvested right here in New York Harbor.
A surprise to many who believe all edible blue crabs come from the Chesapeake Bay. This swimming crustacean was made famous by author William W. Warner in his classic environmentalist book, Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay. After the Chesapeake, maybe the Albemarle-Pamlico Sound, the second largest estuary in the United States, or the Outer Banks, both located in North Carolina and notorious for their large supply of blue crabs.
In fact, blue crab from New York Harbor have been passed off decades ago as Chesapeake Bay blue claw crabs due to greater availability and bigger size, as reported by the New York Times in 1991. Surprisingly, this was back in the bad old days of water quality.
Live blue crabs sold around here are periodically harvested commercially from the great tidal waters of either the Hudson River or New York Bay. It’s a tough way to survive nowadays, but there are still a number of baymen who make a living gathering shellfish and fish from local tidal waters for consumers to enjoy.
Its a relatively small fishery compared to Chesapeake Bay or North Carolina, but cleaner waters and increasing crab populations sustain an important harvest for local baymen to profit from gathering a couple dozen bushels in a day, especially since “a bushel of crabs can bring in $60 to $100 on the wholesale market, depending on the demand,” according to a December 10, 2016 article in the Asbury Park Press.
The primary harvest in local waters takes place during the winter, from early December to the end of March. The crabs are at their fattest then as they prepare for several cold months of inactivity in the mud and muck of the bay.
Commercial crabbers from Belford Seafood Co-op in Middletown New Jersey, reported to be one of the oldest fishing ports on the East Coast, will use dredgers, a large metal basket with steel teeth that can cut through the top few inches of the mud. The ships will rake the bottom for crabs lying on or buried in the bay. Crab dredges are legal only in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and the Pamlico Sound in North Carolina. Primarily adult female crabs are uncovered, since females migrate during spring, summer or fall to more open higher-salinity waters to spawn.
Now with warmer spring waters coming into play, blue crabs are starting to mate. Early spring offers a break from the pressure of many people trying to catch a crab, which usually doesn’t begin again until later in the year.
Those fortunate crabs not harvested by dredging are starting to become active after a long winter’s nap. They are emerging from the mud and muck with a need to breed. Blue claws begin to mate in the spring and will continue through October.
Female blue-claw crabs can only mate once in their lives, whereas adult males can mate several times throughout their life. Roles are well defined for crabs with females taking charge of spawning activities.
Mating usually occurs in the brackish or slightly salty waters of the bay, including in the Croton estuary along the Hudson River and in the tidal portions of small creeks and streams around Raritan Bay.
It all begins with the final molt of an adult female crab out of her hard, outer exoskeleton. Just before this occurs, a lucky male crab will cradle the soon-to-shed female and will mate while she is in the soft-shell stage. The male will continue to embrace and protect his new sexual partner until her new shell hardens. Then she is quickly swims away.
After mating, the female will migrate to higher salinity waters near the ocean, such as in Sandy Hook Bay. She will not be alone, but will share this incredible aquatic journey with other fertilized females. Adult males and immature females will remain in brackish waters. Males will continue to search for other sexually active females.
The seaward migration of adult female crabs results in concentrations of many fertilized females in one area. Here they will fertilize eggs when water temperature, salinity, food availability and other environmental conditions are favorable for the survival of their offspring.
If things do not go quite right, though, there will be another opportunity to get it right. While a female crab can only mate once during her life, she can store sperm in her body for multiple spawnings. Spring mating will result in late summer spawning; a fall mating will result in early summer spawning the following year.
A single female can produce between 750,000 and 1,000,000 eggs per brood, maybe even more. Although this sounds like a lot of eggs, many will not survive. They will be eaten by an onslaught of hungry predators including small fish and jellyfish.
The eggs that do survive will hatch into microscopic larvae called zoea. The zoea will be swept by the bay’s currents to offshore areas in high-salinity waters in the Atlantic Ocean where they will undergo a series of molts. After a month or so, the little crabs will transform into megalops, the next larval stage. They will eventually drift or crawl into a nearby estuary, such as Raritan Bay, Jamaica Bay or the Great South Bay. Here they will spend the next 18 months feeding, molting, and maturing among beds of submerged aquatic vegetation or in shallow sandy bottoms.
It all begins now, as another generation of blue-claw crabs in New York Harbor is produced. Soon some will be seen on a seafood plate or crawling around in a Chinese market near you. Something to look forward to I’m sure.
In the meantime, if you aching to try your luck at crabbing this summer, just remember to follow the rules. The harvest, sale, and consumption of crabs from the Newark Bay Complex are prohibited due to poor water quality. The Newark Bay Complex includes Newark Bay, Passaic River (up to Dundee Dam), Hackensack River (up to Oradell Dam), Arthur Kill, Kill Van Kull, and tidal portions of all tributaries.
Like other sea creatures, please beware of chemical contamination. Because of industrial contamination, fish and crabs from local waters can contain chemicals at levels that may be harmful to your health. But the flesh of blue crabs, excluding the green gland, has far lower pollutant levels than most other seafood tested in the harbor’s waters.
Regulations for recreational crabbing in New York can be found here: http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/37185.html
Regulations for recreational crabbing in New Jersey can be found here: http://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/blueclaw.htm