Nova Scotia

This cannibalistic invasive species could be coming to your dinner table

Food scientists are exploring ways to turn the European green crab into a lucrative commercial industry.

Food scientists are exploring ways to turn the European green crab into a lucrative commercial industry

European green crabs aren't always green, but they do have five distinct spikes on each side of their shell. (Emily Grason/Washington Sea Grant Crab Team)

European green crabs are lean, mean and sometimes green — and they could soon become dinner.

The invasive species is a voracious eater that can quickly devastate the delicate marine plants that provide food and habitat to other creatures. The crabs can also devour other sea critters such as oysters, clams and mussels, and are even known to have cannibalistic tendencies.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada calls European green crab "one of the 10 most unwanted species in the world," because it "has the potential to upset the overall balance of the marine ecosystem."

The species was first found in Canadian waters in 1951 in southwest New Brunswick and has since been located in the waters off Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia.

The European green crab has been found throughout Atlantic Canada and British Columbia. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

But it may be time for the pesky predator to get its comeuppance.

Food scientists in Maine have figured out how to harvest meat from under the carapace of the spiny-faced, hairy-legged crab and create what one researcher calls a "delicious" appetizer.

Joseph Galetti helped create an empanada — a Latin American fried, stuffed pastry — with green crab meat while he was a graduate student at the University of Maine.

"It was sweet and salty and delicious," said Galetti, who now works for High Liner Foods in New Hampshire. "I thought it tasted similar to the meat of a blue crab."

High Liner Foods is headquartered in Lunenburg, N.S.

Consumer testing

Galetti and his University of Maine colleagues allowed 87 consumers to test the product, with what he calls "promising" results.

"The consumers thought it tasted pretty good," he said.

The European green crab is an invasive species in North American waters. (DFO)

The brave diners rated the empanadas between "like slightly" and "like moderately," and 63 per cent of the testers said they would probably or definitely buy the empanadas if they were available.

Galetti said he was interested in the project because he recognized that if a market for green crab meat is developed, it could help alleviate ecological pressures caused by the crabs.

Mechanically separated

Galetti and his colleagues chose the empanada because they could cram a large amount of the meat into the product. But obtaining that meat wasn't easy.

Green crabs are small — usually less than 10 centimetres wide.

"To perform a hand-pick operation it would have been too expensive and too slow," Galetti said. "So we used what's called a mechanical separator to remove the shell material from the mincemeat."

European green crabs, such as this one found in the Little Port Joli estuary, feed on eelgrass. (Oliver Woods/Parks Canada/Canadian Press)

Future extraction techniques could include vibrating the meat out of the shell, extracting the meat with a vacuum, using rollers or centrifugal force or crushing the shell, Galetti said.

Green crab is eaten in parts of Europe and Asia. Galetti said it has been used in fish paste and pasta, and could potentially be used in croquettes, dips, soups, quiches, stuffings and sausages.

The researcher believes green crab meat processing could become a lucrative business.

"I think there's a great opportunity to somehow process these crabs and deliver high-quality food products to consumers," he said. "It's just a matter of someone needs to take the next step. Be collaborative, be creative and make it happen."

With files from Amy Smith