BRUNSWICK — A Canadian businessman hopes to market invasive European green crabs — which are devastating Maine shellfish and eelgrass beds — as human food.
Ron Howse of Tidalwater Seafood Co., based in Fredericton, New Brunswick, will boil and serve the tiny crabs during a news conference Thursday afternoon in Brunswick.
Howse is working with officials in Ellsworth and Lubec, and most recently held a second meeting on Monday at Brunswick Landing to discuss the possibility of building a processing plant at the former Navy base. He said he has discussed free trade zones and other tax policies with the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, and awaits more information from them.
“I think we’re very close” to a decision, Howse said Thursday.
While green crabs are typically too small to be picked for a profit, Howse said he is working with a company in China — he declined to name it — to patent a system of extracting and packaging the meat.
“Traditionally in most crab extraction systems, it really is a lot of hand picking,” he said. “We have exclusive use of a computer program machine that picks the crab, takes the meat out of the crab and it comes out of the extraction system bagged and ready for deep-freeze.”
Shareholders have already invested in the project, but he declined to say what the total investment is to date, or how much he plans to invest, Howse said.
Howse’s business plan projects 150 jobs in the plant itself, with 550 additional “indirect” jobs such as fishermen, truckers and accountants.
The location of the plant will be determined by a number of factors, Howse said, including proximity to the crabs.
Each of the three communities offers unique advantages, Howse said. Lubec is attractive because of its shallow estuaries and “significant biomass of green crabs” reported by divers and other industry sources, but the cold water temperatures limit processing to warmer months. The softshell clam industry in Brunswick and Freeport areas has been devastated by green crabs over the last year, and warmer water would allow a year-round fishery.
While the plant would be located in one community, “holding facilities” could be built in the other two towns and shipments would go through Bangor International Airport.
Depending on which community is chosen for the project, he said the plant could be “up and running by April 15.”
Darcie Couture, formerly of the Maine Department of Marine Resources and now a private consultant working with the town of Freeport to tackle the problems posed by green crabs, said Thursday that she looks forward to hearing more specifics about Howse’s business plan.
“Everybody in the region is very excited about any use for green crabs, but the economic driver is missing now,” she said. “We hope [Howse] is able to provide a little more information.”
Past efforts in Maine to find a market or economically feasible way to deal with green crabs have come up short. At a December 2013 conference on the marine pests, no one could offer any proven way to sell large amounts of them for enough money to make catching crabs worthwhile.