Species Spotlight on Jonah Crab

Jonah crab (Cancer borealis) is a crab species native to the US and Canadian Atlantic coast. They are docile by crab standards and tolerate being handled without attacking. My coworkers at Maritime Gloucester call them “gentle Jonahs.” They look very similar to another type of common “cancer” crabs, the rock crab (Cancer irroratus) having the same brownish red coloring on the top of the shell. Jonah’s get larger than rock crabs and have much larger claws with black tips. Rock crabs are also a commercial species, often sold as “peekeytoe” crab but Jonah crab is harvested is larger numbers.

How Jonah Crabs are Harvested

Historically, Jonah crabs were incidental catch in the lobster fishery. In my lifetime, these crabs went from something we sold to restaurants or gave to grandpa to a part of the catch. Southern New England lobstermen are catching fewer lobsters, but fortunately crabs are becoming more popular. The legal size for commercial harvest is a 4.75” carapace width or larger, which mean the vast majority of Jonah crabs caught are the larger males.

live jonah crab

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission saw this trend and began the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Jonah crab in 2015. Federal regulations for commercial harvesting of Jonah crab began in 2019. To complement the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Jonah Crab and in compliance with the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, NOAA Fisheries approved the federal measures for the Fishery Management Plan for Jonah crab.

Currently, there is no stock assessment or established biological reference points for the stock, and as such, we do not know whether the crabs are overfished or whether overfishing is occurring. Harvesting aside, the biggest threat to this species is arguably the invasive green crab boom all along the New England coast.

Buying Jonah Crabs

jonah crab claws steaming

If a seafood market or co-op is selling American lobster, there is a good chance they also sell Jonah crabs as well. Just like lobster, you can often buy whole live crabs. Unlike lobster, you may also find crab claws either chilled or frozen for sale. These are the so-called “cocktail claws”. Compared to blue crabs or Dungeness crabs, Jonah’s do not have as much meat in the carapace. It can be time consuming to clean enough of them to use in a recipe, so some markets are now selling containers of cleaned meat, like they do for blue crab.

The claws contains crabmeat that is white, flaky and sweet as would be expected. Steaming up a pot of claws can be a fun social even, similar to a clambake. Another option is to steam the claws and use the meat to make a bisque or a corn and crab chowder. There may not be known for big lumps of crab meat, but Jonah’s are a bargain compared to other species. One of my favorite local co-ops regularly sells Jonah crabs for about $1 apiece.

Historic Recipe: Crab a la Newburg (1937)

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup thin cream
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup flaked crab meat
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika
  • 3 tablespoons sherry
  • pepper

Melt butter. Add the flour, salt, pepper and paprika and mix well. Add the milk and stir constantly until thick. Add cream and the crab meat and cook thoroughly. Add beaten egg yolks and cook for three minutes longer stirring gently. If desired, add sherry just before serving.

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