Italy declares war on invading Atlantic blue crabs, by dishing them up


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Italy has declared war on a voracious species of alien crab that devours everything in its path and poses a threat to the country’s fisheries.

The Atlantic blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) has colonised much of the Mediterranean, from Spain and southern France to Tunisia, and has started appearing in Italian waters, where it has been dubbed “the killer of the seas”.

Originally from the bays and estuaries of the North Atlantic coast of the US, it is thought to have been accidentally introduced to the Mediterranean after hitching a lift in the ballast water of ships.

The Italian government announced that it was devoting €2.9m (£2.5m) in emergency funds to tackling the problem of how to combat the rapid spread of the blue crab, which preys on mussels and clams – shellfish that is a cherished part of Italians’ summer diet.

The crabs are endangering the livelihoods of fishermen, with Coldiretti, a national association of agricultural producers, warning that 3,000 family-run fishing businesses are at risk because of the alien invader.

Funding to help tackle invasion

“It’s not so much the fishermen who operate far out at sea but those who work the coasts and return home with a couple of baskets of fish. The blue crab preys on baby fish and fish eggs,” said Tonino Giardini, from a national consortium of fishermen called Impresa Pesca.

The funds provided by the government will go towards helping fishermen and encouraging scientific research. “We still don’t know much about the blue crab – how it lives, how it reproduces, what variables influence its expansion,” he told La Stampa newspaper.

“Increasing our knowledge could help us come up with effective ways of dealing with it. It is just in the last few months that it has emerged as a problem (in Italy). We need to understand what caused the recent explosion in numbers.”

One theory is that the heavy rain and floods that hit parts of northern Italy in the spring flowed into the sea and diluted saltwater with freshwater, creating the brackish conditions that the species thrives in. Another theory is that their spread may be linked to climate change.

“There are so many blue crabs now that we fear for our fish stocks,” said Pier Luigi Piro, the president of a cooperative of fishermen in Orbetello, on the coast of Tuscany. “The number of fish could decline drastically.”

Valuable resource

Environmentalists say that eliminating the Atlantic blue crab from Italian waters, or anywhere else in the Mediterranean, is impossible.

They say that rather than being seen as a curse, it should be seen as a valuable resource – its meat is extremely tasty.

Adopting the principle, if you can’t beat’ em, eat ‘em, Italian chefs are busy coming up with recipes such as spaghetti with Atlantic blue crab meat and blue crab stew, hoping to convince consumers that it is good to eat. In some parts of the country, blue crabs are now selling for €10 a kilo.

The government has taken that message on board, with Francesco Lollobrigida, the agriculture and fisheries minister, saying this week that the aim is to “turn a crisis into an opportunity”.

Commercial value potential

“Blue crabs are a huge resource,” the minister said, pointing to the large quantities of blue crabs that are eaten in the US and China.

“The blue crab contains a high level of vitamin B12, which is very beneficial for humans. That could be used as a way to promote it,” Mr Lollobrigida said. “Given that the species has no predators in our waters, it is up to us to intervene.”

Italy could follow the example of other countries in the Mediterranean, which have come to recognise the commercial value of the blue crab.

In the Cyclades islands of Greece, noticeboards have been erected in ports, advising fishermen that the Atlantic blue crab is eminently edible, along with other exotic invaders such as the Red Sea goatfish, the Lionfish, the Bluespotted cornetfish and the Bigfin reef squid. It is part of a campaign of public awareness called “Pick the alien – Eat responsibly.”

In Tunisia, where the blue crab was seen as a pest when it arrived a few years ago, it is now regarded as a valuable catch that brings fishermen much-needed income.

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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