Of the wide variety of marine animals on the Atlantic Coast, none is more well-known by people, young and old, then the blue crab. The crab's abundance, beautiful coloration, pugnacious temperament and delicious flavor make it a favorite of recreational crabbers in New Jersey. Crabbing is a family sport that can be enjoyed by everyone regardless of age or sex and when compared to other forms of recreation, it is relatively inexpensive. In addition to its recreational value, the blue crab also supports an important commercial fishery.
The blue crab is known to scientists as Callinectes sapidus (kal i nek' tes sap' i dus). The literal translation of this Latin name is the beautiful (calli) swimmer (nectes) that is savory (sapidus). The blue crab certainly lives up to its name with brilliant blends of olive-green, blue and red, the ability to dart swiftly through the water and a body of delicate, white meat.
Of all New Jersey's marine fish and shellfish, more effort is expended in catching the blue crab than any other single species. Surveys indicate that three-quarters of the state's saltwater crabbers go crabbing and that crabbing accounts for roughly 30 percent of all marine fishing activity. Recreational crabbing is particularly important in the upper portion of Barnegat Bay, Little Egg Harbor and the Maurice River estuary, comprising 65 to 86 percent of the total recreational harvest in these areas.
A research survey yielded much valuable data on the blue crab fishery (some of which is covered in the article Researching NJ's Recreational Blue Crab Fishery (August, 2009). Such information is extremely valuable in managing the blue crab resource and in upholding the interests of the state's crabbers.
Blue crabs are abundant all along the Jersey coast, in tidal creeks and rivers and in shallow, saltwater bays, from the Hudson River to Delaware Bay. Although most small boats are ideal for reaching crabbing areas, almost any bank, bulkhead, bridge or pier bordering tidal waters can provide excellent crabbing.
One of the most popular methods is to use baited lines or traps from the bank or a boat. The most common baits are menhaden (bunker) and chicken necks, but any fresh fish will work well. Many crabbers save the racks from filleted fish for crab bait. A very inexpensive bait line can be made by tying a 6 oz. sinker and a large (8/0) hook to one end of 15 to 20 feet of cord. A short stick is tied to the other end and used to secure the bait line on the bank and to store the cord.
Most crabbers operate 5 to 10 bait lines, checking them every few minutes. When a crab is felt tugging on the bait, retrieve the line slowly and steadily until the feeding crab is close enough to be scooped up with a long-handled dip net. Don't lift the crab out of the water with the line.
There is also a variety of wire and net traps that are used to catch crabs. They are particularly effective when used from a bridge.
When crabbing from a boat, it is a good idea to use both hand lines and traps for sometimes one will work better than the other. It is also effective to anchor your boat at the bow and stern to prevent unnecessary movement of the baits and traps. Use fresh bait. After several hours of dunking, the bait will lose much of its attractant odor and should be replaced with a fresh piece.
Another technique, especially effective for soft or shedder crabs, is to wade the shallows with a scoop net. This method works only when the water is clear and calm. Crabs can also be scooped from marsh banks and around bridge pilings and bulkheads.
One of the best and easiest methods for holding your catch is a bushel basket with a lid. Keep the basket in the coolest place possible. Your catch will keep at least a day in this manner. Avoid leaving crabs in direct sunlight, especially during the summer months. Do not put crabs in a bucket of water for they will soon use all of the available dissolved oxygen and drown. Closed containers and plastic bags will also kill your catch. To transport crabs long distances, put them in a cooler with ice.
Before cooking, rinse crabs in freshwater, making sure they are all alive. If a crab's legs and claws hang limp and show no signs of movement it is probably dead and should be discarded. Crabs may be steamed or boiled, depending on your preference.
Drop the live crabs into a large pot of boiling water and cook for 8 to 10 minutes. The shells will turn a bright red. Many people add "seafood boil" or Old Bay seasoning to the water to give the crab meat a spicy flavor. After cooking, remove the crabs from the water and allow them to cool before picking out the meat.
To clean a hard crab, remove the carapace shell by lifting the apron and pulling forward. Rinse out the internal organs and finger-like gills. Then snap off the mouthparts, legs and claws. The edible meat is contained within the claws and the two thin-shelled compartments on either side of the body. Remove the meat from the body by breaking open the compartments or by cutting across them laterally with a knife. Crack the claws open with a knife or a nutcracker.
Crab meat spoils rapidly and must be refrigerated as soon as possible. Do not rinse the picked meat for this will remove much of its delicate flavor. Crab meat can also be frozen and stored. It should be packed tightly in freezer containers and frozen as soon as possible after picking. To prevent freezer burn during long periods of storage, pour a brine solution of one teaspoon of salt dissolved in a quart of water over the packed meat.
With soft crabs, very little preparations is needed. They should be cleaned while still alive. Cut away the mouthparts and eyestalks, lift the carapace and remove the feather-like gills. The rest is edible. To store, wrap in plastic and freeze.
Since January 1, 1998, all commercial style crab pots must be constructed to include a biodegradable panel designed to create an opening to allow crabs and other organisms to escape if the pot is lost or abandoned. Also effective January 1, 1998, all commercial style crab pots set in any man-made lagoon or any water body less than 150 feet wide must include a turtle excluder device inside all pot entrance funnels. Specific information may be obtained upon application for license, or by contacting the Bureau of Marine Fisheries at 609-748-2020.