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Business and Economy

To build a market for green crabs, some look to Maine's Cambodian community

A woman wearing a white shirt picks meat from pickled crabs.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Sokhuon Ou picks meat from fermented green crabs while her friend Theary Ryder prepares a Cambodian beef dish. Ou says green crabs taste just like a different crab she used to eat in Cambodia, and she incorporates them into several traditional dishes.

Standing in a small skiff in the middle of an estuary near York on a recent morning, Mike Masi reached down to pick up a small white buoy. Bracing one foot against the gunwale, he hauled up a trap filled with dozens of squirming green crabs.

"We’ve had a trap set here for a month, and we still haven’t fished them all out," Masi said as he dumped the crustaceans into a plastic crate.

Masi is a co-founder of Southern Maine Sustainable Shellfish, a new company targeting a species you won't find at your local fish market.

A man hauls a crab trap out of the water onto a small boat.
Ari Snider
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Mike Masi hauls a crab trap on an estuary near York. Masi co-founded Southern Maine Sustainable Shellfish last year, in part to test the commercial viability of green crabs.

Green crabs have been present in Maine waters for over a century. Cold winters used to keep them in check, but their population has grown as the Gulf of Maine warms faster than almost any other part of the ocean. That's bad news for soft-shell clams, a major food source for the crabs.

While green crabs are damaging Maine’s shellfish industry, harvesters like Masi are trying to figure out if the crabs themselves could become a commercially viable species.

A gloved hand holds up a green crab.
Ari Snider
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Mike Masi holds up a green crab caught in an estuary near York. The crabs are native to Europe, and their population has grown as the Gulf of Maine warms due to climate change.

"When I look at it big picture, what we have to figure out is how to best utilize every part of this ridiculously abundant resource," he said.

But Masi said buyers are less abundant. Currently, he sells soft shell green crabs to about half a dozen restaurants. The only consistent buyer he’s found for hard-shell crab, the vast majority of his catch, is a bait supplier in Rhode Island.

Then, this spring, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce called with a curious offer — they wanted to buy 1,250 pounds of hard-shell green crab at $1 a pound, nearly twice what Masi was getting from the bait supplier.

The plan was to distribute crabs by the bagful at the Cambodian new year celebration at the Buddhist temple in Buxton — not as bait, but as food.

Masi said he was skeptical.

"I'm like, this isn't going to happen. There's no way," he remembered thinking. "We're going to end up taking these all back, or at least half of them."

At the celebration, though, his doubt quickly evaporated.

"Just nonstop just stuffing green crabs into little seafood bags. As fast as we could pack, they were gone," he said.

Dozens of crabs in a plastic crate.
Ari Snider
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Freshly-harvested green crabs scramble around a plastic crate on Mike Masi's skiff in York. Onshore, Masi will pull out the individuals that are likely to molt and become soft shell crabs. The rest he sells as bait to a supplier in Rhode Island.

Masi said he was shocked, but this level of demand came as no surprise to Tae Chong, director of multicultural markets and strategies at the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

Chong organized the crab giveaway, as part of an ongoing research project into seafood consumption within the Cambodian communities in Maine and Massachusetts.

"And so I asked the question, you know, 'Do you eat green crabs?' And they said, 'Absolutely,'" Chong said.

Chong said he sees a business opportunity here, whether that’s selling green crab through a fishmonger in Portland or putting them on a truck to Lowell, Massachusetts, home to a much larger Cambodian community.

For now, Chong said Maine seafood harvesters are missing out on new customers by not paying more attention to what immigrant communities want to eat.

"Because they'll tell you," he said. "We just haven't been asking, and we haven't been listening."

Chong’s vision for a more robust commercial green crab market in Maine depends in part on buy-in from people like Sokhuon Ou, an elder in the southern Maine Cambodian community.

A woman wearing a white shirt stands at a kitchen sink.
Ari Snider
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Sokhuon Ou pauses while preparing a cucumber salad garnished with fermented green crab. Ou says she sources green crabs from Cambodian community members who harvest them.

Recently, Ou was at her friend’s house in Gorham, using a mortar and pestle to mix homemade fermented green crab with garlic and chilis as a garnish for a cucumber salad.

Ou said the first time she tried green crab was after picking up a bag of them at the Cambodian new year celebration. Speaking in Khmer while her friend Theary Ryder interprets, Ou said the crabs taste just like to the ones she used to eat in Cambodia — a welcome reminder of home.

"So I was so excited that, you know, something that's similar to my crab, similar to Cambodian crabs, and I have not had it for a long time," Ou said.

A woman holding a crab shell with the meat picked out of it.
Ari Snider
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Sokhuon Ou picks meat from fermented green crabs. In addition to fermenting the crabs, Ou says she uses them in soups and deep fries them.

For now, Ou said she gets her green crabs from friends who harvest their own. But Ryder, who holds a leadership role within the Cambodian community, said there is unmet demand during the winter months, when amateur harvesting is less popular.

"Yeah in the summer of course they can go and catch them at the beach," Ryder said. "But the demand is year-round."

Recently, Ryder said she's also been fielding calls from community members looking to buy the crabs in bulk, and ship them to relatives in other parts of the country.

Three dishes piled with food on a wooden table.
Ari Snider
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Cucumber salad garnished with pickled green crab (left) and salty crab salad (right) are two Cambodian dishes that utilize green crab.

For now, Masi is focused on harvesting soft shell green crabs during their brief molting season to sell to high-end seafood restaurants, who've experimented with green crab sliders, fried crab appetizers and other dishes. But in the long term, he said building off the initial success of the Cambodian new year giveaway is an important piece of the puzzle.

"If we could find ways to market this better to that population, then it could be a piece of the overall green crab fishery, to make it feasible," he said.

While Masi faces the economic pressure of keeping his business afloat, there's plenty of time to figure out how best to use these invasive crabs. Because by all accounts, they’re here to stay.

A man sorts green crabs.
Ari Snider
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Mike Masi sorting green crabs onshore, picking out the ones that are likely to molt soon. Masi and his business partner are still trying to figure out if the green crab market is robust enough to support a harvesting business like theirs.