Consider an industry that uses only 20 percent of its raw materials and throws the rest away. Not a very economically and environmentally efficient business model, but one that is employed out of necessity by Maine’s crab processing industry, which thrives by steaming or boiling the raw crustaceans and handpicking the sweet, succulent meat from the legs, body and claws.
While the cooked crabmeat is destined for the consumer market, the rest of the crab — approximately four-fifths of its body weight — is bound for the nearest landfill or compost pile.
For food scientist Denise Skonberg, those numbers don’t add up. That’s why she’s been exploring other options for that 80 percent of cast-off crab deemed unusable and undesirable by the food processing industry.
Skonberg, an associate professor in the University of Maine Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, focuses her research on seafood quality evaluation and the utilization of crustacean processing by-products. In particular, she has looked at ways to utilize a chemical derived from crab shells for use as a food coating to extend the refrigerated and frozen shelf life of seafood. She also is using a mechanical process to extract bits of meat from shells to produce crab mince or paste, which is typically used as a filler or flavor enhancer in the restaurant industry.
But Skonberg’s crab research doesn’t end with the Jonah crab (Cancer borealis). In addition, she has turned her attention to the European green crab (Carcinus maenas), an invasive species that pesters the lobster industry by eating bait out of traps, but one for which there is currently no commercial fishing industry. Green crabs are about a third the size of Jonah crabs and, therefore, make for even more difficult meat extraction.
That’s something Skonberg hopes to change by taking the same mechanical process that harvests mince from Jonah crabs and applying it to the smaller species. Together, her two areas of crab research could one day be used to improve the efficiency of the state’s processing industry, as well as create an entirely new fishing industry while alleviating a nuisance to lobster fisherman.
Talk about nothing to crab about.
“There are a lot of potential opportunities,” says Skonberg. “The crab industry focuses on the 20 percent of the body weight of the crab that is the easily extractable meat. It’s the highest value portion and the whole reason the industry exists.” But there is other stuff inside the crab that is useful.
“The green crab opportunity is really exciting. They are easy to catch, but for the lobstermen they are a nuisance. If there was a market for them, they could easily be targeted.”