Blue crab – an invader in Italy – is sending the fishing industry into crisis

Our prized Maryland blue crab is an unwelcome intruder in the waters of northern Italy, and the problem has grown to such an extent that it is endangering the economies of entire regions.

When we spend hundreds of dollars on prestigious crab feasts, the Italian fishing community sees these crabs as the enemy. They eat young oysters and mussels, which are the main fisheries for the country’s seafood industry.

like Gulf Bulletin First reported in 2019, scientists believe blue crabs made their way to the Mediterranean Sea in ships’ ballast water, collected in North America and released into waters abroad.

Crabs were first discovered in Spain’s Ebro Delta in 2012. Since then, they’ve spread across sea, rivers and wetlands, multiplying even as scientists try to study their migration patterns. In Spain, the claws of crabs were destroying fishing nets.

But for Italy, there is more at stake than damaged fishing nets. The fishermen’s association Fedagripesca-Confcooperative reports that the crabs have already eaten nearly 90 percent of the young oysters and cost Italy around €100 million (US$107.2 million). Italy is the largest producer of oysters in Europe and the third largest in the world (after China and South Korea).

Meanwhile, government leaders are advising fishermen to catch as many blue crabs as possible to try to reduce their numbers. But it may not be enough. Fedagripesca-Confcooperative says 326 tons of blue crabs have been caught in Veneto so far this year.

An Italian man with ties to Maryland and a big fan of crab feasts wants to get his family and friends involved in blue crab-picking.

Cesare Barban, 34, is an IT manager in the province of Treviso in northeastern Italy, about an hour from Venice and the currently crab-ridden Adriatic coast.

Barban tells us that when he was in college, he had an American girlfriend from Maryland. He spent a few months living with her family in Westminster, experiencing “the real Maryland way of life,” as he puts it.

“Days full of crab-based food, boating on the Chesapeake Bay, baseball games, backcountry rides, picking Halloween pumpkins straight from the pumpkin patch, the Baltimore Aquarium, food, food, food…it was all a blast!”

Barban also fell in love with Old Bay seasoning and JO Spice, and kept them in his Italian kitchen. He says he’s been scouring Venice’s fish markets for blue crabs for two years, but until recently, fishmongers had never heard of any such crabs. So far.

This year, their Adriatic population is booming and fishermen are hurting. As Barban explains: “Every time they cast their nets into the sea, they only pick up blue crabs and they don’t pick up oysters or prawns.”

When the governor of the Veneto region, Mr. Luca Zaia, made a televised address warning Italians of an “emergency of American blue crabs on the shores of the Venetian Sea”, the locals began to take crabs seriously as a source of food.

The crab dishes cooked by the Venetians have an Italian flair: they are sautéed with garlic, parsley and white wine, or fried or sauced with crab pasta.

Another thing about the crabs that swarm the Italian coast: They’re huge. Barban says the average weight of a blue crab there is 450-500 grams (about 1 pound). For comparison, the average Chesapeake Bay blue crab weighs just 1/3 pound, and the largest fish ever caught in the bay was 1.1 pounds, according to NOAA Fisheries.

When Barban finally finds some live blue crabs at a market last Saturday, he surprises his fiancee and a group of dinner guests with a Maryland-style feast, complete with Old Bay Amazons he ordered from Italy. The crabs were steamed with water, vinegar, beer, and spices. It is served with corn on the cob.

The group reused small hammers and nutcrackers to capture the crabs. Barban says his fiancée and their friends loved the holiday. Next, he plans to deal with crab cakes.

“Although I am proud to have been born and raised in Venice, a little piece of my heart will forever remain in Maryland!” He says.

– Meg Walbourne Viviano

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