Gone crabbin’

Toronto Star, March 29, 2017 PORT JOLI, N.S.-Nova Scotia’s warm south shore is famed for beaches, surfing and the Bluenose II, but there’s a new game in town — rowing across a lagoon in Kejimkujik National Park Seaside to haul crab traps and help save the ecosystem.

First the bad news. Estuaries along the east coast of North America, from Maine up to Newfoundland, have been struggling to contain an invasive species of green crab from Asia. The crab, about the size of the palm of your hand, rips through eel grass, important habitat for fish, and pigs out on soft-shell clams, devouring dozens each a day and threatening the species (not to mention clam chowder).

Now the good news. In 2010, Parks Canada started removing the green crab, by hand, from a lagoon at Kejimkujik to see whether the eel grass and soft-shell clams would come back. It’s working. And now, the public can get in on the action.

It starts with a helmet. You wear it for a 20-minute, six-kilometre bumpy ATV ride to the lagoon where the crabs lie. You trade the helmet for a life jacket and set out in a sturdy metal rowboat. Your lovely Parks Canada guide will row if you don’t want to, while telling you everything there is to know about the green crab. For instance, they’re cannibalistic. “You’ve got to respect them,” says our guide and rower, Chris McCarthy. “They’re eating, reproducing machines. They can adapt to almost anything and eat anything.”

When that first trap comes out of the water and you hear hundreds of crabs clicking their little claws for dear life you realize you’re not a fisherman. Or a scientist. “That should be right out of a horror show!” a fellow wannabe says of the sound that makes the hair on your neck stand up.

 

When you dump the trap into a grey bin in the bottom of the boat, reaching in to pull the reluctant off the mesh, the little guys start clinging to you and well, growing on you. “They’re so cute!” the same woman says. That didn’t take long.

It takes a little longer to get the hang of carefully picking them up so you don’t get pinched as you count them. McCarthy, a resource conservation manager, grabs them by the handful, counting five or more at a time while dropping the “barrel of monkeys” into a bucket. I manage one at a time and accidentally overshoot the bucket, flicking one back in the water. If “Lucky 48” hadn’t got away, we would have had 202 crabs in our trap. The record is 1,139.

Since 2010, Parks Canada has removed 2.5 million crabs from this area, one trap at a time. They’re “dispatched” by being placed in fresh water — they can’t adapt to that — and sold as compost or bait. Eventually the crabs may end up at fancy restaurants — they’re considered a delicacy in Asia and chefs from Maine to Newfoundland are beginning to serve green crab.

We row over to some rocks to get out and eat the sandwiches we brought along. We watch kingfishers and greater yellowlegs fly by while hearing more about the green “ecosystem engineers.” Then it’s back to the boats to haul the last of the traps. The final task of the day is to pick 50 crabs at random and measure them with a little ruler.

By now we know how to spot males (they have a lighthouse shape on the underbelly) versus females (beehive shape). As we record the sex and width on a data sheet, we learn green crabs can be left or right handed, or sinistrous or dextrous as actual scientists might say.

Our afternoon’s work helping restore the ecosystem complete, we hop back in the ATVs for the ride back, stopping on St. Catherine’s beach to get sand in our toes, watch the waves crash on the rocks and enjoy the sun on our faces. “It’s hard to have a bad day out here,” says McCarthy. Unless, of course, you’re a green crab.

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