The Crabby Life

As I alluded to in my last post, these days the crabbing is FINE.  The crabbing life is a new routine for me, and I thought that it might be unfamiliar to many out there, especially those without much experience on the coasts.  I’ve also been reflecting on the idea of doing a few posts on the daily experiences of sustainable living–especially for those dreaming and wondering what it might feel like to live a little differently.  So if you’re stuck in an office looking at the fall rains, or if you’ve only ever eaten “imitation crab meat” from the grocery store or in a California roll (or both!), come with me on what has become our evening routine…

Evenings on Cowichan Bay

The phone usually rings about ten to five.  “Almost ready?” The Skipper calls when he’s a few minutes from home, and I start getting ready to head to the boat.  Sometimes I walk the 15 minutes to the marina, other evenings I hop in the van when he swings by.  Skipper comes in and grabs the bucket, some fuel, his old work gloves, and some bait from the freezer by the back door.

Crabs are the scavengers of the ocean floor.  They are notorious for eating EVERYTHING (they’re the ants or the cockroaches of the sea, really!), but they seem to particularly like fresh remains.  So folks around these parts save the bones and assorted carcasses from the salmon or other creatures they’ve caught through the season to feed the crab.

In the early evenings, the winds on the Bay are usually dying out, and we spend a peaceful few minutes motoring out in our wee sailboat out to our traps.  It’s a chance for us to unwind from the day a bit and hang out together without any distractions.  If there’s still a little wind, we might put up the sails for a half hour just to relax a little longer.

Our traps are down between 100 and 180 feet, depending on the location.  I haven’t thought much about those distances, other than to think about where the crabs might be (they like deep water).  But the Skipper observed this evening that these discrepancies mean that within a few hundred yards, the ocean bottom rises up 8 stories and then dips back down again!  There’s a huge hill under the water that we don’t even realize is there.  Amazing!

The trap’s location is marked with a small red and white buoy–you can just see it by the rail of the boat in the photo above.

Once we get to the marker, the real work begins.  I take the tiller and try to hold us in one place, while the Skipper gets ready.  He hooks the buoy with a pole, and then begins to haul the trap up by hand, up 200 feet of rope!  You can imagine how much effort that takes in the resistance of the water!  But he doesn’t seem to mind. 🙂  In fact, all through his teens growing up on the East Coast of Canada, he fished commercially for cod with his uncles.  They were “handlining” or “jigging”, which meant spending several hours a day pulling up 10-30 lb cod fish on a small fishing line with a hook, one after the other.  He swears that’s where his muscles come from!

The Skipper at Work

As the trap gets closer to the surface, he can start to tell how full it might be! (Either that, or we’ve caught an octopus, a giant starfish/sunfish, or hooked an old boot 🙂 )  Much anticipation until the trap breaks through the water….

Then, if we’re lucky…


We can keep 4 per fishing license per day.  So between the 2 of us, we’re looking for 8 males that are big enough to pass muster (there’s a regulated size limit).  Small ones and females go back into the deeps.

If they can get out, they're too small!

Big ones go in the bucket where they wrestle for space and make funny whispery noises to each other–almost like they’re smacking their lips.  If they had lips.  Maybe that was me.

The bait gets replaced and the Skipper hefts the trap back over the side.  We’re so low-tech that he measures the depth by the feet of rope left after the trap hits bottom.  Simple, but it works!

Once we’re home, the big pot gets some water under the steamer basket and gets set on the stove.  The Skipper has the slightly grisly job of “dressing” the crab, which means he pops the big back shells off them and rinses out all the guts and brains.  They get cracked in half and stacked in the pot, then steamed for 15-20 minutes.  Then we usually eat dinner–usually not crab!

We’re stocking the freezer these days, so after dinner, once the beasties have cooled off, we spend the evening shelling and then vacuum sealing the meat.  Crab in pasta, sushi, chowder, pizza…it’s going to be a good winter.

It’s a time consuming routine, and my hands are toughening up from cracking shells every evening, but it’s very satisfying.  And still feels like a miracle to bring wild foods–exotic and special when purchased in the store–into our staple diet.  And shelling, like so much of the fun of self-sufficiency, is easy to do while being entertained by episodes of The Simpsons or Trailer Park Boys! 🙂

The next day, I’m faced with a big smelly pile of shells.  There’s so much nutrient value in there that I’ve been loathe to throw the pile away.  But they can’t go in the regular compost pile, or we’d have every cat and raccoon for miles around in our backyard.  So I’ve been burying the shells in the trenches where I’ve just pulled up our potatoes.  I’m hoping by next summer they’ll be broken down enough to feed some happy plants.  Next, I have to find out what veggies like calcium!  (I know about tomatoes, but they’re in the potato family and can’t go there next year…any ideas?)


6 thoughts on “The Crabby Life

  1. Awe shucks, you guys make it look so easy and fun! Maybe we’ll get a trap. . . but then we have to learn to like crab. Hmmm, that could be a challenge for some of us who were not raised on the coast. For now, I’ll just enjoy watching all the little baby crabs when I walk the beach – knowing they are part of the big life cycle out there and some might end up in your pot.

  2. Isn’t it funny how our tastes are so determined by what we grow up with? I often wonder at the fact that crab and lobster look so delicious to me, whereas crickets and cockroaches look completely unappealing–and yet the crustaceans just look like giant bugs, and they essentially are! I have friends from the prairies who had no trouble living without fish in their diets, and yet had a very hard time giving up beef. I’m totally the opposite. Oh well!

  3. Oh this is just inspiring! We need to get a crab trap and get it out there. I figure that if we catch crabs, we could trade them for veggies in lieu of our lack of garden.

    Yes Bartering. That may be the solution.

  4. Hey there, you lucky duck! You two sure are going to be knocking down the old “bad” cholesterol with all of this seafood in your diet. Boy, what I wouldn’t give…
    Sorry, [Pavlovian (sp?) reflex] had to wipe the spittle off of my chin.
    Uh, right, where was I? Oh yeah, calcium… How about broccoli? It’s high in calcium; or, I found this list online: Amaranth leaves (my parents called this Pigweed – another one of those neglected, high nutrient wild greens/grains), Bok Choy, Brussels Sprouts, Butternut Squash, Celery, Chinese Broccoli, French Beans, Kale, Okra, Parsnip, Spirulina, Swiss Chard and Turnip. Loads of choices! ; )

  5. Thanks for the suggestions, Deb; the brassicas might be the way to go. I’m thinking about a nitrogen cover crop too, or maybe fall rye, to balance off all the minerals. I could probably boil the shells for stock; don’t know why I never thought of that! We’ll see how much patience I have. 🙂

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