Lobsters are not the only crustaceans taken in traps from the cold water off the coast of Maine. As long as lobstermen have been using lobster traps, they have been taking another shellfish in with their haul: crabs.
Not that they want them, but the crabs tend to crawl into traps set for the lobsters. In the past, lobstermen mostly threw them back.
But in the last 10 years, more and more lobstermen have been bringing in the hard-shelled crabs to have them cooked and the meat extracted, packaged and sold.
Although they are still a byproduct of Maine's major lobster industry, crabs now rank 20th in the state's seafood catch, said Robert Beaudoin, director of marketing for the Department of Maine Marine Resources in Augusta.
The catch of Maine crab is still relatively small -- particularly compared with figures for Maryland, where nearly 47 million crabs were harvested last year.
Only 3.5 million pounds of crab were taken in Maine in 1988, the latest year for which statistics are available, compared with 23 million pounds of lobster. But it is a thriving cottage industry.
Lawrence P. "Skip" Greenlaw Jr., manager of the Stonington Lobster Co-Op in Stonington, Maine, said his group caught 324,000 pounds of crab last year, which he turned over to a number of "pickers," mostly wives of the lobstermen.
They boil the crabs in huge pots on outdoor fires and handpick the meat from the shells. The meat is packed in small plastic containers and shipped, by truck, to wholesalers, retailers and restaurants.
In New England, Maine crabmeat has been selling well for several years.
Legal Seafoods, a leading retailer of fish and seafood to restaurants and stores in the Boston area, sold 13,000 pounds of Maine crabmeat last year, said Roger Berkowitz, a company owner. Maine crabmeat is also sold to restaurants and stores in New York City, northern New Jersey and Westchester County.
"It's starting to catch on," said Joe Grippa, an owner of North American Lobster Co., which has three retail stores in Parsippany, North Bergen and Carlstadt, N.J., where Maryland blue crabmeat has been a staple for years. "Our customers are getting used to the Maine crabmeat, and it's just a matter of time before it really takes off," Mr. Grippa said.
Joe DiMauro, owner of Mount Kisco Seafood, in Mount Kisco, N.Y., says he is selling 40 to 50 pounds of fresh Maine crabmeat each week. He said he has been selling Maine crabmeat for the last 8 to 10 years -- fresh in containers as well as in his prepared soups.
Mr. DiMauro and Mr. Grippa say they find advantages in the Maine crabmeat. (Maryland crab accounts for the majority of crabmeat sold in the New York area.)
Maine crabmeat, from rock, Jonah, sand and spider crabs that live in the cold water off the coast, is available fresh throughout the year.
Crabmeat from Maryland, which comes from the blue crab, is harvested only in warm weather and is pasteurized or frozen to extend its shelf life.
An 8-ounce container of Maine crabmeat generally sells for about $6.50. A similar quantity of Maryland lump crab costs $9.
Many cooks who are familiar with Maine crab are also pleased with its flavor. John Maylor, a cook and owner of the Grouper Cafe in Mount Kisco, has been cooking with Maine crabmeat in the five years since the restaurant opened and says he will not use other crabmeat.
"Maine crab is sweeter, like lobster," he said, "because of the cold water it comes from."