Sunday, April 14, 2024

Steamed Snow Crab

Snow crabs --  also known as chionocetes opilio, "opilio crabs" or just "Opies" -- are native to the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. One can find Opies at depths between 43 feet and over 7,000 feet, but they usually hang out on sandy or muddy areas around 110 feet deep. The Atlantic Opies are located along Greenland, Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Pacific Opies are predominantly found in the waters around Alaska and Siberia. If anyone has watched any of the nineteen seasons of the TV show, Deadliest Catch, then you have inevitably watched crabbing vessels ply their way around the Bering Sea, pulling up large pots with snow crabs.  

Yet, chinocetes opilio may become better known as the twenty-first century, aquatic version of the proverbial "canary in the coal mine." Back in 2018, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries estimated that there were about eleven billion (11,000,000,000) snow crab in the northern Pacific ocean. By contrast, there was just 7.6 billion people on the planet in 2018.  Just three years later, in 2021, there were just over one billion (1,000,000) snow crab in the same region. A loss of ten billion would exceed the entire human population on the planet. (There were only 7.8 billion people on the planet in 2021.)

Researchers and scientists have spent the following three years (from 2021 through today) trying to determine what exactly caused this catastrophic plunge in the northern Pacific snow crab population. At the time, no one quite knew what happened. There were theories that the crab migrated to colder waters, either at greater depths or further North. Other theories revolved around disease or predators. Years passed and the research continued. In recent months, researchers and scientists have begun to go public with their conclusions. One organization -- the Global Seafood Alliance, a not-for-profit that promotes responsible and sustainable seafood practices --wrote a very interesting and troubling piece about that research. 

Charts explaining the snow crab collapse.
Source: Science (2023),

The bottom line has a simple answer and a complicated one. The simple answer is that the snow crab starved to death. The more complicated answer involves climate change. There is no disputing the fact that temperatures have increased in the northern Pacific. The rising temperatures were the facts that led many to think the crabs migrated. However, they didn't. They remained where they were. And, relatively speaking at the time, there were a lot of snow crabs. However, as the temperatures increased, so did the metabolism of the snow crabs. The rising metabolism meant that the snow crabs needed to eat more. An increase of 3 degrees Celsius (or about 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) requires snow crab to eat twice the amount of food they would otherwise eat. However, there was less to eat because of the rising temperatures. The combination of factors led to mass starvation and death. It also led to the closure of the snow crab seasons, with the resulting harm to fishing vessels and their crews. 

The snow crabs are a warning sign and it is one that has led me to limit the snow crab that I purchase and consume. The last time I probably bought snow crab was back in 2018 or 2019, before the news broke about the population loss. I broke down recently to purchase some snow crab legs as a treat for my beautiful Angel and the kids, as well as an opportunity to talk about the pressures that threaten the crab's future. 

Generally, snow crab is easy to prepare. The best way is to set up a steam pot and steam it for about 10 to 15 minutes (if the snow crab is frozen, less time if it is thawed). The steamed crab needs only be served with melted butter. 

But, I looked around for something to add to this special dish. I ultimately I found a recipe for a spice mix that reminded me of my project  -- In Search of Orange Gold -- in which I sought to recreate Old Bay. The mix worked well with well with the melted butter and the snow crab. It also works well as a blackening spice for fish. 

After this recipe, I will go back to my old ways of not buying snow crab.


Spice Mix Recipe from

Serves 4-6

Ingredients (for the crabs):

  • 4 pounds snow crab legs (about 3 clusters to a pound)
  • 1/4 cup distilled vinegar
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
  • 2 teaspoons allspice berries
  • Water
  • 1 cup butter, melted, divided into four serving ramekins

Ingredients (for the spice mix):

  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper


1. Prepare the steam pot. Add 2 to 3 cups of water to a steam pot, so that the water level is below the plate or steam basket. If you want to add additional flavorings, add the vinegar, garlic, bay leaves, mustard seeds and allspice berries. Heat the pot, covered, on high until the water starts to boil and steam comes out

2. Prepare the spice mix. Combine all of the ingredients in a small bowl, mix thoroughly. Set aside. 

3. Steam the snow crabs. Add the snow crabs to the pot by layering them. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes. 

4. Finish the dish. Remove the pot from the heat and remove the crabs from the pot. Serve immediately with the melted butter and spice mix.  


No comments: