Ever had a pressing question about crabs that you just couldn’t get answered? You’re in luck. There’s now a book for that. And Dr. Judith Weis, of Rutgers University in New Jersey, wrote it.
Crabs are fascinating creatures that keep fishermen fishing, seafood lovers salivating, and people born in June crabbing all over the world. We had a chat with Judith about all things crabs in anticipation of getting our hands on her new book, Walking Sideways; The Remarkable World of Crabs.
Judith has worked with the Marine Fish Conservation Network since 2008. A biologist and marine ecologist, she has spent her career studying salt water estuaries and their ecological dynamics.
FishHQ: Tell us about your research.
Judith: You mean 40 years of research in a nutshell?
FishHQ: Yup. Just the highlights.
Judith: I’m interested in the ecology of estuaries and estuarine animals; especially how they deal with stresses in their environment, including pollution, invasive species, things like that. I’ve mostly studied fishes and crabs. I’ve also done some work on shrimp.
FishHQ: What makes a crab a crab?
Judith: A crab is a crustacean with ten legs and claws like a lobster or shrimp, but instead of having its abdomen sticking out behind (lobster tail), it is tucked underneath.
There are two major groups: true crabs (Brachyura) which have 10 legs, and anomurans, which are not true crabs, and appear to have only 8 legs because the last pair is greatly reduced. This second category includes hermit crabs and king crabs, where the abdomen is only partially tucked underneath. Without getting into taxonomy, the anomurans include some creatures that look more like lobsters than crab, such as the squat lobster, which is also called a galatheid crab.
FishHQ: Although you’re a biologist, you write about more than just the biology of crabs, covering a spectrum of crab-human interactions.
Judith: There is a wide spectrum of how humans interact with crabs. I include several chapters on this, including crab fisheries, which features another Network member, Ray Toste of the Washington Dungeness Crab Fishermen’s Association. There’s also a chapter on eating crab that looks at all the ways people use crab for food, local crab delicacies, and the range of crab dishes throughout the country.
I wrote a whole section on crabs as pets, specifically pet hermit crabs that are sold as beach souvenirs but are often not properly cared for; they need very specific humidity levels. Hermit crabs are particularly interesting behaviorally and ecologically because they basically spend their lives trying to get a bigger shell wherever they grow; it’s the main focus of their lives.
One area that was interesting was the cultural aspect of crabs: crabs in mythology, crabs in astrology, crabs in children’s books, adult literature, crab festivals and what they signify. My scientific research has been largely focused on the local crabs here in New Jersey, but in researching this book I learned an enormous amount about crabs in other parts of the world, and the way people interact with them.
FishHQ: In your book you feature fisherman Ray Toste of the Washington Dungeness Crab Fisherman’s Association. What did you learn from Ray?
Judith: Ray really helped me learn about the different issues that arise in managing the crab fisheries over on the West Coast, and elsewhere. There are a lot of issues that come up outside of the biology; the question of rights to fish, and who gets them. And of course there’s the issue of overfishing that all fisheries have to face. It’s important to understand the ecology of crabs and how they interact with fisheries. A great example is the Atlantic blue crab, which was declining throughout the 1990s and the early 21st century. There was a winter dredge fishery in Virginia that would happen in the part of the Chesapeake near the mouth, where female blue crabs would migrate to in the winter, to bury themselves in the sand and incubate their eggs, to be released next spring. But the trawl fishery would capture females and the next generation of crabs — it was a very good way to reduce the population quickly! Finally, in 2008 I think, they closed that fishery and the population rebounded quite quickly. It was good evidence for understanding the fishery dynamics.
FishHQ: How do you feel about that?
Judith: I’m a conservationist. I understand that fishermen need to make a living, but it needs to be balanced. If you have too many boats and too many people fishing, it might be more than a fishery can sustain and that doesn’t make any sense.
FishHQ: But you see value in working with fishermen to incorporate the scientific knowledge into the fishery?
Judith: If fishermen cooperate with scientists, it can be a wonderful partnership to increase our knowledge. There are many cases where they are cooperating to the benefit of both parties — what we ecologists call mutualism.
You can order Walking Sideways directly from its website; or even better, ask your local bookstore to stock it! You’ll support your local business, help Judith promote her book, and find out everything you’ve ever wanted to know about this fascinating topic.