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