The blue crab – invasive in Italy – is sending the fishing industry into crisis

Our prized Maryland blue crab is an unwanted interloper in northern Italian waters, and the problem has gotten so bad that it is putting the economies of entire regions at risk.

When we spend hundreds of dollars on time-honored crab feasts, the Italian fishing community sees these crabs as the enemy. They eat young oysters and mussels, a major fishery for the country’s seafood industry.

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

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

But for Italy, there is more at stake than damaged fishing nets. The fishermen’s association Fedagripesca-Confcooperative reported that the crabs have already eaten nearly 90 percent of the baby oysters and have cost Italy about 100 million euros (107.2 million US dollars). 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 crab have been caught in Veneto so far this year.

An Italian man with Maryland ties — and a keen love of crab feasts — wants to get his family and friends involved in blue crab picking.

Cesare Barban, 34, is an IT manager in Italy’s northeastern province of Treviso, about an hour from Venice and the Adriatic coast currently plagued by crabs.

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 the Westminster area, experiencing “the real Maryland way of life,” as he put it.

“Days filled with crab-based cuisine, boating on the Chesapeake Bay, baseball games, backcountry horseback riding, picking Halloween pumpkins straight from the pumpkin patch, the Baltimore Aquarium, and 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 wandering around Venice’s fish markets asking for blue crabs for two years, but until recently, fishmongers had never heard of any such crabs. So far.

This year, their population is booming in the Adriatic Sea and fishermen are hurting. As Barban explains: “Every time they throw their nets into the sea, they catch nothing but blue crabs and no oysters or prawns.”

When the governor of the Veneto region, Luca Zaia, made a television speech warning Italians of a “state of emergency for American blue crabs on the shores of the Venetian Sea,” locals began to take the crab more seriously as a food source.

Crab dishes cooked by Venetians have an Italian flair: they are fried with garlic, parsley and white wine, fried or in a crab pasta sauce.

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

When Barban finally found some live blue crabs at a market last Saturday, he surprised his fiancée and a group of dinner guests with a Maryland-style feast, complete with Old Bay that he ordered from Amazon Italy. The crabs were steamed with water, vinegar, beer, and spices. Served with corn on the cob.

The group reused small hammers and nutcrackers to pick crabs. Barban says his fiancée and their friends loved the holiday. Next, he plans to tackle 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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