Crabs: when you think of them, you think of food, or of running after them on the beach. There is actually more than that. In Asia, and in Thailand in particular, some species of crabs provide essential livelihood opportunities for local people who have little other options to earn money.
The south of Thailand is predominantly a Sea Sun and Sand destination, with lots of local seafood delicacies to be enjoyed in the many restaurants scattered around the province. It is mainly for this reason that I have decided to spend a few hours with a family of local crab catcher in their quest to make and income and fill up their bellies, and hopefully mine too! Follow AsianItinerary on board of their longtail boat…
I start the day in Klong Muang, a rather peaceful tourist area located in the Thai province of Krabi. After meeting with our contact Khun Cha, her husband, her daughter and her father in law at 8am at the local pier, we board their longtail boat and set sail. The sea is calm and the sky is blue in this mid-January morning. Cha explains that most local fishermen go out quite early to haul traps and nets in and to collect the crabs. They often place their traps back in the water right after they have collected the previous day’s catch, which is what they are planning to do today.
As the sun rises higher in the sky and highlights the silhouettes of the several limestone islands that dot the Krabi sea, we slowly approach the first buoy that marks the start of the first set of traps – Cha’s family has 5 set of 50 traps each in place! Each line of traps is distinguished by the colour of the flag attached to the start and to the end buoy, for easy recognition. The traps are usually set down in circles, in order to cut each possible way out and catch crabs that are walking around foraging.
It is at this point that the collection begins. Cha’s husband and father in law skilfully lift trap after trap from the bottom of the sea: in this point the water is approximately 8 meters deep, Cha tells us. We are all pretty excited when they found one of the traps containing a decent-sized crab. Retrieving the crab needs skills: we observe how Cha’s husband quickly sorts through the crab, being careful not to break crab legs or get his fingers pinched. He is an experienced crab handler and he knows that the crab wants to get out but it does not like being forcefully grabbed. He gives the net a quick shake, grabs the crab from its back, takes it off the net, ties its spiked claws with two elastic bands and places it in a bucket filled with sea-water.
These collapsible traps have an inner pouch that needs to be refilled with bait (small fish in tranches of bigger fish) before the trap can be folded up and placed on the boat floor together with the ones collected so far.
We take advantage and ask Khun Cha a few questions, getting interesting answers on the crab subject. During the autumn months, the monsoon blows in the south of Thailand and the waters do feel the effects of the stormy weather. In that period, a warning of high waves often means fishermen cannot go out, especially those with small boats like the one we are on today. This means that not only will crabs be scarce in the markets, but also prawns and fish. Also, fishermen in this area have to deal with currents and tides: peak high or low tide are the best times to crab, as during swift tidal exchanges crab often bury themselves. It is when the water starts to flow again after low tide that fishermen place their traps to take advantage of the natural tendency of sea animals to swim with the current.
Back to our day, the operation continues until the whole 50 traps of the first set have been collected. While some traps contain one single crab, others give us occasional surprises with other edible sea animals such fish and shellfish and various shallow-water fish, an hermit crab with its massive shell, starfishes, a pufferfish and even a good-size octopus which devoured the crab that was in the trap leaving just the bones, and became trapped itself in the process.
We are told that most local crabs of any size are delicious, although there will be more meat in the claws and under the shell of larger ones. The shell of their claws and their back will be hard, however, making the meat difficult to remove. Some type of small crabs are quite heavy and have a lot of meat, but their shell is thinner, making it easier to remove. It is also amazing to learn that each female crab can carry between 30000 and one million eggs, and that no more than 30% of these will produce offspring. That is the reason why Cha’s family often releases ‘pregnant’ female crabs when they have darker eggs, a sign that they are near hatching time.
An Internet research also tells me that the Thai Government has so far successfully established 320 blue crab banks across Thailand in an effort to raise the number of blue crabs in the sea, as the rising crab consumption in the country has led to a decline in their numbers in Thai waters.
And as our day leads to an end and our boat approaches the sandy shore, Cha prepares the catch of the day to be sold. Buying crabs directly from a boat when it comes in lets buyers see them at their freshest time, and also very active as they are recently freed from the traps. Price for local crabs can vary. On average, medium-sized crabs cost 200-250 baht a kilo, but larger ones can cost more.
We disembark and say goodbye to our lovely hosts. It is great to see that (at least in this area) locals have decided to both preserve the fishermen’s way of life and the traditional crab-catching methods.
IDENTIFY YOUR CRAB
In order to properly identify what crab you have caught, you need to look at it carefully. What colour is it? How big are its claws? How does its shell feel to the touch? The Marine Conservation Society and other associations have some great identification sheets that you can download and take with you when you go to the seaside, and they’re not just for crabs, but all sorts of other things you might find at the beach.
YOU MAY WANT TO KNOW
Blue swimming crabs have been increasingly threatened. If you find small and young crabs in a market or at a restaurant, treat it as a bad sign: if inconsiderate fishing practices continue, there will not be enough young crabs to replace the old crabs, which may have a severe effect on the future growth of the crab population.
To take steps towards a solution, WWF invited an independent fisheries and aquatic resource consulting company to assess and evaluate the situation of the blue swimming crab fishing industry in Thailand using the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) standard. Seafood with the MSC label, gives assurances to consumers that the food comes from, and can be traced back to, a sustainable fishery that meets the highest benchmarks for credible certification and eco-labelling.
Asian Itinerary stayed at Nakamanda Resort, https://www.nakamanda.com
Asian Itinerary was lucky enough to be invited to a crab curry cooking session at the crab-catching family home. READ ABOUT IT HERE!