Our prized Maryland blue crab is an unwanted interloper in the waters of Northern Italy, and the problem has gotten so bad that it’s putting the economies of entire regions at risk.
Where we spend hundreds of dollars on our time-honored crab feasts, the Italian fishing community sees these crabs as the enemy. They are eating up young clams and mussels, key fisheries for the country’s seafood industry.
As Bay Bulletin first reported in 2019, scientists believe blue crabs made their way to the Mediterranean in the ballast water of ships, scooped up in North America and released into the water overseas.
The crabs were first detected in the Ebro Delta in Spain in 2012. They’ve since been spreading via sea, rivers and wetlands, multiplying even as scientists attempted to study their migration patterns. In Spain, the crabs’ claws were damaging fishing nets.
But for Italy, there’s a lot more at stake than damaged fishing nets. The fishermens’ association Fedagripesca-Confcooperative reports that the crabs have already eaten up nearly 90 percent of young clams and cost Italy about €100m ($107.2 million U.S.). Italy is Europe’s largest clam producer and the third largest in the world (after China and South Korea).
In the meantime, government leaders are advising fishermen to catch as many blue crabs as possible to try to curb the population. But it may not be enough. Fedagripesca-Confcooperative says 326 tons of blue crabs have been caught in Veneto so far this year.
One Italian man with ties to Maryland—and a strong love of crab feasts—wants to get his family and friends on board with picking blue crabs.
Cesare Barban, 34, is an IT manager in the northeast Italy province of Treviso, about an hour from Venice and the Adriatic shore that is currently plagued by crabs.
When he was in college, Barban tells us, he had an American girlfriend who was from Maryland. He spent a few months living with her family in the Westminster area, experiencing “the real Maryland lifestyle”, as he puts it.
“Days filled with crab-based cuisine, boat sailing in the Chesapeake Bay, baseball games, countryside horse riding, picking the Halloween pumpkins right off the pumpkin patch, Baltimore Aquarium, food, food, food…it was all a blast!”
Barban also fell in love with Old Bay and J.O. Spice seasoning, keeping it in his Italian kitchen. He says he’s been going around to Venetian fish markets asking for blue crabs for a couple of years, but until recently, the fishmongers had never heard of any such crab. Until now.
This year, its population is booming in the Adriatic Sea and fishermen are hurting. As Barban explains it, “Each time they drop the nets in the sea, they would pick up nothing but blue crabs and zero clams or prawns.”
When the Veneto regional governor, Mr. Luca Zaia, made a television address warning Italians about “the American blue crab emergency on the Venetian sea shores”, locals started taking the crabs seriously as a food source.
The crab dishes Venetians are cooking up have an Italian flair: sauteed in garlic, parsley and white wine, deep fried, or crab pasta sauce.
Another thing about the crabs overtaking 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 Chesapeake Bay blue crab is only 1/3 pound and the largest one ever caught on 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 ordered from Amazon Italy. The crabs were steamed with water, vinegar and beer and seasoning; and served with corn on the cob.
The group repurposed small mallets and nutcrackers to pick the crabs. Barban says his fiancée and their friends loved the feast. Next, he plans to tackle crabcakes.
“Even though I am a proud born-and-raised Venetian, a little piece of my heart with forever be in Maryland!” he says.
-Meg Walburn Viviano