BRINGING VENICE TO MAINE
Written by Julian Burlando- Salazar
Last month, marine biologist Marissa McMahan and fisherman Chris Jamison, travelled to Venice, Italy to learn the ancient technique of soft-shell green crab cultivation. In Venice, green crabs are an artisanal food; when eaten for their caviar they are known as “Mazanetta” and when fried whole with a soft shell they are known as “Moleche”. While the Venetians have been producing and harvesting these crabs for centuries, across the Atlantic in America the same crabs are an invasive species. Despite growing crab populations and an onslaught of ecological problems, there are no established culinary fisheries here in the US. Marissa’s goal is to blend ancient Venetian fisheries techniques with modern hatchery technology to produce soft-shell green crabs here in the US. Marissa hopes that a soft-shell industry could help incite a culinary market, providing a valuable food source while combatting the ecological nightmare the species has inflicted. However, mastering and adapting such a secretive practice would be no small feat.
In August 2016, a Venetian green crab fisherman, Paolo Tagliapietro, came to Maine to train them on how to identify pre-molt signs; necessary information for identifying and harvesting the crabs. Subsequently, in winter of 2017, Paolo invited Marissa and Chris to Venice to master the technique. While in Venice, Paolo, his brother, and father-in-law taught Marissa and Chris how to sort and identify a “good crab.” Everyday, Marissa and Chris assisted Paolo and his family, sorting through a catch of 700-800 pounds of green crab per day simply to find “good crabs”. To do this, the sorter would stand under an umbrella in the full sun to identify a slight grayish, white outline around the plates of the crab. After picking out the “good crabs”, fisherman would leave the crab in live wells to molt.
The group harvested about 22-25 pounds of green crab per day, in the off-season. Once removed, the crabs were stored and observed for up to three weeks until they molted. Marissa noted that the biggest challenge was training her eye to naturally identify pre-molt signs on the green crabs. At market in Venice, the crabs are considered a delicacy and sold for 25€ to 45€ per kilogram, or 8€ per piece in restaurants. Bringing this soft-shell market to the US has the potential to incite a massive culinary industry and diversify fishing efforts while motivating fisherman to harvest green crabs.
In addition to her work with soft-shell crabs, Marissa works with a team in Maine that monitors and studies green crab populations. The team collects data on population abundance, sex ratios, seasonality, habitat, temperature and molting pattern data. The molting season for green crabs here in the US likely depends on temperature and tends to begin in late spring/ early summer. Marissa and her team are getting an early start on the season in order to maximize their chances of creating the nation’s first invasive soft-shell green crabs.