Think you know the delicious blue crabs that call our Lowcountry waters home? You may not

The majority of the time, we humans give very little thought to the food we eat as far as how it came into creation. We only think of how good it tastes and satisfying our appetite.

Take for example the common blue crab that swims and lives in our Lowcountry salt water creeks and rivers. You may think that’s not much to consider. Most of us just think a crab is a crab is a crab. I must admit that I’m guilty of this thought. I’ve seen crabs all my life in different sizes down at the creek, and have caught and cooked them. However, in gathering information for this article, I was amazed at how little I knew about this colorful saltwater creature, other than the hurtful pinch it can give with its claw if I’m not careful.

I knew that South Carolina law requires that captured crabs less than 5 inches in width be returned to the water. That’s a statement in itself when I found out just how long it takes for a crab to attain this size.

Crabs hatched in April or May become two to three inches wide by November and five inches or larger by summer of the following year.

The life span of a crab is very short, with most living less than a year.

The blue crab’s scientific name callinectes sapidus, translates to “savory beautiful swimmer,” The creature is classified as an arthropod and must periodically shed its exoskeleton in order to grow. I am very familiar with folks buying and enjoying soft-shell crabs, but always thought the shedding was an annual or one time process in the life of the crab.

Not so.

The life cycle of blue crabs starts as a “zoea,”, then grows into the “megalops,” which grows into the juvenile and finally the adult crab. The large adult male crab are called “jimmies” and the mature female crabs are called “sooks” (not very flattering.) The smallest crabs shed every 3-5 days; juvenile crabs every 10-14 days; and those three inches and larger every 20-50 days.

Called “peeler” crabs during this process, the molting lasts for only a few minutes as the crab pushes out the rear of the old shell. After a few hours, the crab’s shell becomes parchment-like and fully hardens within 2 or 3 days.

In early April, a run of peeler crabs usually lasts about two weeks. Female crabs mate only during their final molt when they are in the soft-shell condition. To attract females ready to mate, fishermen use “peeler-pots” containing one or two large male crabs to entice them in.

When the female crabs are gathered from the peeler-pots, they are held in shedding tanks until they molt. The soft-shell crabs are then removed from the water and refrigerated for sale. They are in high demand for their delicious meat. But to me that seems like “robbing the cradle” since the female only mates during their final molt and in the soft-shell condition.

I have only eaten one soft-shell crab in my life time and that was at the Seafood Festival held every October in Cedar Key, Fla., from one of the food booths. I didn’t particularly care for it and found the “smoked mullet” from another booth more to my liking, which gave me thoughts of home since I was practically raised on fresh caught mullet, sweet potatoes and cane syrup.

Females that mate in fall or winter usually spawn the following spring, producing up to two million eggs. Only one million will survive to become an adult. Females carrying an egg mass are called sponge crabs and are protected by law in South Carolina. If captured they must be returned to the water instantly.

There is no closed season for catching crabs but there are laws to abide by. A saltwater fishing license is not required if you’re only using 3 or less drop nets, fold up traps or hand lines with a single bait per line (chicken neck).

The commercial crabber who has more than 2 pots must purchase a commercial saltwater fishing license, a vessel decal and gear license.

None of that extravagant licensing was necessary when, as a child standing barefoot with mud oozing between my toes, I held two homemade crab lines of short sticks and twine with a chicken neck tied on anxiously awaiting the nibble of a “savory beautiful swimmer.”


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