Wednesday, August 17, 2016

From Pest to Plate: How Age-old Venetian Knowledge May Save Maine's Fisheries--and Introduce a New Dish to the US

A recent image of an unused crab crate with the campanili of San Marco and San Giorgio Maggiore in the background

Last April, at the height of the spring moeche, or crab season here in Venice, I put up a post inspired by a Venetian friend's description of how mysterious is the knowledge and skill of the lagoon's remaining crab fishermen. The fishermen's livelihood depends upon their ability to detect those crabs among the hundreds and hundreds in their crates who are just about to lose their shell.

A fascinating article by Penelope Overton in the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, published this past Sunday, and which I found out about thanks to the always informative Facebook page of the community group We Are Here Venice, describes how this specialized Venetian knowledge may now play a vital role in combating the destruction of Maine's fisheries by a very close relative of the small crabs common to the lagoon.

It seems that moeche (also known as moleche, which is the term used in the Press Herald piece) have been thriving in the warming waters off Maine and wreaking widespread underwater ruin. As the ever-proliferating small crabs feasted on the area's clams, mussels and scallops, scientists at the University of Maine at Machias studied them to determine whether the marauding mollusks might be turned to account and brought to market themselves.

They concluded, however, that "the crabs did not give any external clues to their molts and thus could not be harvested commercially."

Thus, the small crabs continued their rampage, impervious to all efforts to contain them, until an art conservator, Jonathan Taggart, who'd recently been doing research in Venice, introduced marine biologist Marissa McMahan to the Venetian tradition of crab fishing, and, ultimately, to the Venetian crab fisherman Paolo Tagliapietra.

Overton writes that other people had asked Tagliapietra to teach them how to identify the signs of impending molt upon which the business of crab-fishing depends and he had always refused. "But as a fisherman," she writes, "he wouldn't turn away a request to help other fishermen [in Maine] overcome a problem."

And if you click on the link in the second paragraph above to Overton's article, you can read for yourself Tagliapietra's detailed description of the long-secret signs that a crab (Carcinus maenas) is about to molt--as well as a generally captivating article.


  1. That was so generous of him, to share his knowledge AND pay his own fare.