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Like a few types of seafood, America’s East Coast watermen are an endangered species. As environmental factors and overfishing continue to challenge their source of income, some watermen are turning to tourism and other careers. Fortunately, in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, people who earn a living from the sea are still blessed with access to the wide-open Atlantic. And they’ve become the chief suppliers of seafood for people living north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Like so many watermen, Ashley O’Neal’s grandfather fished these waters, as did his father before him. O’Neal’s Sea Harvest is a commercial fishing operation in Wanchese, a tiny village on Roanoke Island in the Outer Banks. Mr. O’Neal operates a fleet of boats that harvests seafood from the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds.
The 36-year-old oversees his family’s operation consisting of 30 watermen — that includes fisherman, crabbers and shrimpers — and up to 14 packers depending on the season. In May, their busiest month, the company shipped nearly 18,000 dozen softshell crabs to Northern cities from Washington, D.C., to Boston. The bulk of the crabs supply restaurants and markets in Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia, but restaurants in Pittsburgh are creating interesting dishes with soft-shell crabs — such as the soft-shell crab tostadas served earlier this season at Tamari.
There are eight commercial seafood operations in the Outer Banks. In addition to supplying wholesalers, they sell their fish and shellfish at small markets adjacent to where their boats unload the fresh catch of the day. You can’t get seafood any fresher than what you’ll see in these markets. It’s one of the best reasons to vacation in the Outer Banks.
“May and June are the key months for soft crabs,” explains Mr. O’Neal. “The blue hardshell crabs become plentiful in June, July and August. We’re bringing in shrimp in August, September and October. Beginning in September and through November, the flounder start running.”
Late spring and early summer is the busiest time, because that’s when crabs start shedding their shells and building larger ones. The O’Neal operation helps them along. Someone is supervising the tanks 24 hours a day, checking them every three to four hours, so when the crabs start molting, they are separated into different tanks depending on how far along they are — shell on or shell off.
Experienced crabbers recognize when a crab is about to shed its shell based on color changes. Mr. O’Neal says, “A light-red line forms on its back. Then the fiddler is ready to shed. If it’s pink you have some time.” A crab’s first step is to shed the exoskeleton or outer shell. This is how they increase their size. Crabs molt about 27 times throughout their lives. The younger crabs molt frequently — as often as seven times in a few days between each molt — and continue to molt throughout the year.
After shedding their shells, crabs have no armor to defend themselves from predators. To continue the growth process, the O’Neal’s team separates the molting crabs to keep them from being devoured by the ones with shells. These carnivorous scavengers are happy to eat one of their own.
Once the crabs reach their full size, they are hand-packed tightly into breathable wax boxes to keep them moist and not sliding around. The boxes are then refrigerated to slow down the crabs’ metabolism and to keep them fresh.
Softshell crabs must be alive before cooking or they are far less desirable to eat.
You can tell that a softshell crab is still alive if it’s releasing bubbles from its mouth. This is water that remains in their lungs after they’re removed from the tanks. Another indicator is to see if the mouth falls open when you flip it over — if it does, it’s likely dead.
To prepare a soft-shell crab, first cut off the tentacles and eyeballs. Remove its feathery gills, coat the entire body with beaten raw egg, and then roll it in corn flour. The crab is sauteed or pan-fried in butter for a crisp coating, but its meat remains tender and succulent. As they sizzle in the pan, crabs turn from green-blue to orange. Serve with slaw, between two slices of toast for a crab po’ boy, or grilled with lemon and cilantro on a bed of julienned cucumbers and jicama.
O’Neal’s Sea Harvest suggests making Softshell BLTs by cleaning a crab, drenching it in egg wash and then drenching it in seafood breading and shaking off the excess breading. Drop the crab into a deep-fryer at 350 degrees and fry for 3 minutes, then put it on bread of your choice with bacon, lettuce and tomato.
Renee Sklarew is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DCWriterMom.