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Extra butter, please: Somerset County crab pot yields a rare three-clawed crustacean

John and Debbie Woollen have been catching a bushel of crabs a week lately off their Somerset County dock. But the harvest included a strange specimen Monday -- a three-clawed crab.
John and Debbie Woollen have been catching a bushel of crabs a week lately off their Somerset County dock. But the harvest included a strange specimen Monday -- a three-clawed crab. (Courtesy John and Debbie Wool / Handout)

The crabs have been plentiful off John and Debbie Woollen’s dock in recent weeks, helping them stock up on meat for a big batch of soup. But their haul Monday included a specimen the Somerset County residents can’t bring themselves to eat.

Call it FrankenCrab. A genetic marvel. A mutant crab only a mother could love.

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Protruding from the side of one of its thick white claws: A third set of pincers.

“I said, ‘Ooh, good, look, it’s an extra claw!’” Debbie Woollen said. “Yum, yum.”

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They caught it in a pair of crab pots they keep at the end of their pier. The Woollens have harvested about a bushel a week recently, steaming the crabs, picking them and freezing the meat, saving it for the annual Skipjack Festival on nearby Deal Island over Labor Day weekend.

The Fourth of July is the busiest time of year for Maryland's crab industry. But now that it has passed, uncertainty hangs over the summer and fall.

They didn’t quite know what to make of their unusual catch, and shared the monstrosity with friends on Facebook.

It’s a rare mutation, but not an entirely alien one, said Eric Schott, an associate research professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. He said he has seen pictures of various species of crabs and lobsters with extra claws in the past.

Still, as he looked at a picture of the Woollen’s catch, Schott wasn’t sure what to make of it either.

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“Thats interesting,” he said, pausing. “That’s certainly — it happens. We don’t know how it happens, but we can guess.”

Maryland's crab industry is in crisis, with nearly half of the Eastern Shore businesses without any workers to pick the meat sold in restaurants and supermarkets. They failed to get visas for the mostly Mexican laborers who pick the crabs when the Trump administration awarded them in a lottery.

Crabs commonly lose limbs, or parts of them, in scuffles with other crabs or predators, and then regrow them, he said. Sometimes that process can go a bit … awry.

“There’s no evidence to think this is because of environmental contamination,” Schott said.

Even if it’s safe to eat, the Woollens won’t be cracking this crab open. They steamed it with the rest, but plan to sit it outside for the ants to devour.

Once the extraordinary shell is cleaned out, they’ll bring it back inside and keep it — shellacked and glued to a piece of driftwood.

Maryland's crab population is down by 18 percent in 2018 after cold weather killed off more than a third of adult crabs. But the number of juvenile crabs swimming into the bay is up by a third as Chesapeake Bay crabbing season begins.
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