Italy Must Eat Its Way Out Of The Blue Crab Crisis

The invasive Atlantic blue crab poses a real threat to Italy's economy.

The Atlantic blue crab is a very real problem for Italy. It's being labeled not only an invasive species, but a natural disaster, and the Italian government has allocated nearly €3 million to help sustain fishermen and fight the invasion. In lagoons where thousands of people make their income fishing clams, mussels, and more, the crab threatens many Italians' way of life. If you think that sounds surreal, well, what's more surreal is the potential solution: cooking and eating as many of the crabs as possible.

Italy’s blue crab crisis, explained

Over the past year, Italy's crab population has exploded, partly because Atlantic blue crabs have very high reproductive and survival rates—they're at the top of the food chain in European waters. As they proliferated in southern France this summer, they were literally dubbed "serial killers." Why the harsh language? Because Atlantic blue crabs love to feast on mussels, clams, and other shellfish, all of which the European economy relies on. The fishermen's association Fedagripesca-Confcooperative reports that the crabs have already eaten up nearly 90% of young clams and cost Italy about €100 million (or $107.2 million) in the process.

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This has global effects, too. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), three countries are responsible for two-thirds of Europe's mussel production, with Italy coming in third behind Spain and France. Of the 220 production sites or farms, 132 of them are located in Southern Italy or Sardinia, not to mention that Italy is Europe's largest clam producer (and third largest in the world after China and Korea).

Why are the crabs suddenly thriving in parts of Italy? Chesapeake Bay Magazine reports that scientists believe the ballast water in ships is to blame. This water gets scooped up in North America and then released back into the water overseas; the USDA calls ballast water "one of the major pathways for the introduction of nonindigenous marine species."

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Marine biologists posit that the blue crabs are thriving due to warmer ocean waters, too. Per CNN,

"Usually when the water temperatures drop below 10 C (50 F), this variety of crab doesn't survive," Enridca Franchi, a marine biologist and researcher with the University of Siena, says. "But now the crab finds the ideal temperature 12 months of the year."

Due to all of these factors, fishermen are being put out of business. Blue crabs not only feast on the mussels and clams that fishermen catch for their livelihood, but they destroy the fishing nets, too, and the crabs themselves aren't very valuable, failing to fetch the same price tag in Italy as they would in America. Here's how one official put it to The Guardian:

"We need people in Rome to understand that this disaster is putting at risk the lives of thousands of families and businesses," said the governor of Emilia-Romagna, Stefano Bonaccini, after a summit on Monday.

"This invasion risks destroying an economy which not only provides a livelihood for a community, but which is an Italian and European excellence, together with other identity products of this region like Parma ham or Parmigiano."

Italy does indeed pride itself on its excellent DOP ingredients like Pecorino Romano, San Marzano tomatoes, and Parma ham. There are hundreds of years' worth of identity and tradition at risk here, all thanks to the blue crab. So, could consuming the crab itself be any kind of solution? Are desirable blue crab dishes going to help Italians eat their way through the problem, as CNN suggests?

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Should we eat invasive species?

The Italian government is really pushing for the country to embrace this invasive species. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni was photographed eating the crab, and Francesco Lollobrigdia, the minister of agriculture, has posted Facebook videos about using the crab in his own culinary creations. In one, he calls it an "economic opportunity for many."

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But for many chefs and fishermen, that positive spin isn't cutting it. Italian chefs sure do seem like they're pissed at the blue crab (understandably),to the point that they don't even want any part in serving it. CNN highlights the case of one chef at a two-Michelin-starred restaurant who refuses on principle to serve the crab because "it is destroying our lagoon."

Crab is common, even a tradition, in Venetian cooking. Granseola alla veneziana is essentially cooked European spider crab that's been chopped and tossed with olive oil, parsley, and lemon juice, then served in its shell. But blue crabs aren't traditional within this cuisine, and beyond that, they aren't like our Maryland blue crabs, which hibernate in the winter and develop a strong fat deposit. These crabs are hanging out year-round in warmer waters, staying relatively lean. So chefs aren't exactly lining up to make use of them—but there are those beginning to incorporate them on the menu.

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"I'm seeing more and more restaurants trying to sell it and make some profit off it," says chef Francesco Lucatorto, of Ceci's Gastronomia in Los Angeles, who's been monitoring restaurants' response to the Italian crab crisis. "Mainly, it's a Northeast Lagoons issue. No blue crab in Liguria for now."

How to cook with Atlantic blue crab

Chef Diego Argoti, of Poltergeist in Los Angeles, tells me he used to make a killer stuffed pappardelle that would be a great vehicle for the blue crab; it looks like two small sheets of long, eggy pasta pinched at the ends with a crimper to get that "stuffed" quality. Brown butter and blue crab is a winning combo.

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Blue crab also translates well to risotto and salads, even though crab has never really been a huge part of the Italian culinary lexicon. Spaghetti vongole, Sicilian sardines and caponata, shrimp fra divalo, Venetian shrimp with polenta, lobster and linguine, and fritto misto all take precedent over the blue crab in Italian cuisine, and there might just not be any changing that fact. Italians are deeply rooted not only in their traditions, but in the ingredients themselves. It's a large part of their identity.

It's hard to know how much that identity can shift to accommodate an invasive species. If Italy embraces blue crab, is it possible the nation can eat its way out of this dilemma? Might the price of blue crab eventually skyrocket due to increased demand?

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If anybody can eat their way out of a problem, it's Italy. That is, however, only if the blue crab is embraced by diners once it's added to the menu—and there's no guarantee that it will be.

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