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There are tiny crabs in my oysters! Is this normal?

  • z

I just had some of the best seafood I have enjoyed in years, but in two cases I ran into tiny pea crabs in some of my oysters, first time both in steamed and raw oysters and the second time, one was in the raw oysters. I ate the steamed pea crabs and they were pretty good, didn't have the courage to eat the still living, writhing ones in the raw oysters. The oysters themselves seemed pretty good and both the waiter and the people next to me said it was normal, so I wolfed down little steamed crabs the size of peas. Tasty but odd.
Back to my original question, though. Is this normal? The people I talked to said that the crabs were like wrasse fish, they cleaned the gills of the oysters and made them even cleaner. Were they making a virtue out of necessity, i.e. their oysters have pea crabs so they try to make it sound like it is not only normal but a good thing. So are they symbionts or parasites? And does it matter?
Some of you probably know where I ran into these little fellas, but I want to post it here on this board where people don't have their regional pride wrapped up in the issue.

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  1. I don't know if those little critters are good or bad for you, but I personally would not want to be eating them raw in a freshly shucked oyster. I know the stuff that big crabs eat is rather disgusting, regardless of how delicious the end result is.

    I feel you made a good choice in not eating the writhing ones.

    1 Reply
    1. re: mdfoodlover

      if you dont like to think about what crabs eat - how can you even look at an oyster?

      I knwo some guys who were chicken necking once and had a couple of dozen crabs, when the cops came and started dredging for a body near where they were crabing.

      The ate the crabs anyway . . . .circle of life.

      1. re: reiflame

        That is fascinating! Love the article and now I know something new! Thanks

          1. I've experienced those tiny crabs many times, I generally avoid eating them however!!

            5 Replies
            1. re: Hue

              Hue, at the risk of getting this thread mod'ed out of this branch, would you say where you saw them? And how often you would see one in, say 3 dozen oysters? Is it even less frequent than that is most of the Chesapeake Bay?
              I think it is a regional thing, and even though I was less than 300 miles from DC, I saw pea crabs whereas I have never seen them in oysters on the Bay. I will fess up and admit that this is about the Outer Banks/Albemarle Sound area, but I hope the moderators will leave the thread here with Chesapeake Bay oyster fans so I can find out if this is normal just in the Outer Banks or if it happens up here too and the shuckers just get rid of them without my noticing it.
              But Reiflame's article makes me wonder if it happens up here too.
              It didn't affect the flavor, size or appearance of the oysters in any way that I could recognize, and they tasted kind of good steamed, but I couldn't bring myself to eat them live, even though I was eating raw, live oysters at the time.

              1. re: Ziv

                I grew up in the Albemarle sound area, and remember always having tiny crabs in oysters as a kid. We always ate oysters at home, so no intervention from a restaurant. There was always a bit of goading to eat the crab, especially when shucking raw oysters with live crabs! In later years, most of our oysters came from Texas, and did not have crabs,

                1. re: mpjmph

                  mpjmph, thanks for your response, it was exactly what I was looking for. When I first saw the steamed pea crab, I was a bit put off, but the guy at the bar next to me looked at me like I was a bit slow and said something to the effect that 'our oysters are the best in the world and some of them have pea crabs' but I wasn't sure if it was true or if he was helping to put one over on the 'foreigner'. The steamed pea crab was kind of sweet and rich, not sure what to call it.
                  I have had oysters from New York to New Jersey to Delaware to Maryland to Virginia plus Florida, Alabama and Louisiana, and I had never seen a pea crab. I think they must pop up occasionally elsewhere, but the shuckers dispose of them since people are less used to seeing them.

                2. re: Ziv

                  Ziv, I'm a Baltimoron born and bred, and I have seen this with mostly Chincoteague oysters shucked at home. I assume most raw bars would remove any "pea crabs".

                  1. re: Hue

                    After I thought about it, Hue, I kind of figured the shuckers I see (who are usually shucking Chesapeake Bay, Apalachicola or Blue Point oysters) were just kind of flipping the pea crabs to the garbage and I didn't notice it. But it is kind of amusing. I have been eating raw oysters for 30 years and never noticed one of these little guys, but then again, I never shucked my own oysters.

              2. This topic intrigues me. We live on the landlocked prairies where the sea culture is non existent. I did not even realize this occured! Learned something new again today.

                1 Reply
                1. re: chefathome

                  Same here, and I've lived on both coasts for most of my life.... Then again, I don't eat raw oysters or shuck any.

                2. Oyster (aka "Pea") Crabs are considered a delicacy, & it's completely normal to find them in oysters. The reason they choose oysters as hosts is for protection, since the crabs are naturally soft-shelled. In addition, there's absolutely nothing "disgusting" about them. They eat the same filtered food that oysters eat. Nothing else. They're not scavengers like other members of the crab family. Their only drawback is that since they eat the same food their host oyster eats is that they are, in essence, stealing food from the oyster, & some folks feel it makes the host oyster less plump.

                  But as far as eating goes - the crabs are perfectly safe to eat, raw or cooked.

                  7 Replies
                  1. re: Bacardi1

                    I second Bacardi 1. Eastern shore natives that I met and became friends with during my years in the area relished the pea crabs in the oysters. After eating my first dozen or so I became addicted.

                    1. re: mudcat

                      Mudcat, how often do you see pea crabs? I never shucked my own oysters and I hadn't seen one til I went to a locals seafood place in the Outer Banks. And I have had oysters there at Awful Arthurs, Dirty Dicks and Tortugas Lie and I never was served an oyster with a pea crab in it before. And I think Tortugas Lie is a pretty darned good seafood joint, the other two are not places I would go back to, but they weren't horrible.
                      Are shuckers starting to show tourists pea crabs now, whereas they used to hide them by disposing of them (or keeping them for themselves) 5 or 10 years ago?
                      Thanks for helping me out with this! I am really curious about this sort of food thing.

                      1. re: Ziv

                        Often when eating raw oysters in the Norfolk, Va. area. 1959 to 1961 and 1972 to 1975. I have never seen them in Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia, Pacific Northwest, Hong Kong, Australia, Italy, Greece, France or Florida oysters. My mother's people were Croatian oystermen in Louisiana from 1909 through the '40s, oysters featured prominently in our diet. Friends accuse me of being born with an oyster knife in my hand. I have never suffered any ill effects from eating raw oyster anywhere. I do have Gout however as did all my uncles and aunts on both sides of the family, just part of our heritage. I take my medicine and am careful of the raw oysters I eat, always accompanied by plenty of cold beer.

                        1. re: mudcat

                          Interesting. So it seems like the majority, at least, of the pea crabs are in the Norfolk/Albeamarle/Outer Banks area. But if they are in the Norfolk area of the Chesapeake, why don't they come further north more often? Because they do show up in the northern Chesapeake, just not as often as they seem to show up in the Outer Banks. Or maybe the 3 or 4 I saw in a dozen oysters was just a coincidence.

                    2. re: Bacardi1

                      Bacardi, thanks for the response, but I have to admit that I don't want to eat one with his little legs churning away as I crunch into him! Steamed were fine.

                      1. re: Ziv

                        I fully agree with you there. I couldn't eat them alive either. But since I seriously dislike raw oysters & only eat them cooked, I won't have to make that call - lol!!

                      2. re: Bacardi1

                        I've only seen them once, about 5 or six years ago in a bushel of oysters I got in the Southport/Wilmington area. I was shucking my own and it was quite a surprise to find these little creatures in my oyster. I could not locate any information on them at the time, so it is good to know they are safe to eat.

                      3. not really symbiosis there...just peaceful coexistence. Certainly not parasitical, and completely normal.

                        8 Replies
                        1. re: sunshine842

                          Peaceful coexistence? If oysters had legs and claws as crabs do, they would evict the scofflaws!

                          1. re: Veggo

                            but if they sit still long enough, they might become a pearl. :)

                            Just meaning that the crabs don't hurt the oysters, and the oysters don't hurt the crabs.

                            1. re: sunshine842

                              I was digging the symbiotic idea, I am ok with peaceful co-existence, but I hope the little devils aren't freeloading to the detriment of their hosts' health! ;-)

                              1. re: Ziv

                                not really -- they might be snagging some of the oysters' food, but obviously if both are alive and well, it's not to the detriment of the oyster.

                          2. re: sunshine842

                            Actually, the pea crabs are parasites, I looked it up.

                            1. re: John E.

                              I read the same article -- they might be snagging some of the oyster's food, but they're not eating the oyster itself.

                              1. re: sunshine842

                                Would you eat the tiny little crabs? I'm intrigued but don't know how I would react if confronted with one of the critters.

                          3. This is so interesting to me, because I eat a fair amount of oysters, but I've never experienced this... I can't tell if anyone has answered the question of whether it's specific to the area the oysters were farmed or not?

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: cgarner

                              I am still hoping the areas of pea crabs existence, both now and in the past, will come up.

                            2. I have had this in Costa Rica- we were snorkeling and our guide picked oysters off the ocean floor. He opened them up and there were the little critters- literally transparent. He picked one up and ate it. He said they're a delicacy. So, I said alright, picked up one and ate it live. I was like eating a fishy tasting bug (although I have never eaten bugs).

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: salsailsa

                                I did that with shark 'sushi' on a fishing trip. Raw shark is not very tasty. Having its legs whipping around as I bite into it would have made it worse.

                              2. This is perfectly normal - and considered a delicacy here. We often have steamed oysters at my sister and brother-in-law's house on the Pamlico River in North Carolina. BIL steams them and we all shuck them. In fact we had some a month ago and many of the oysters had the little crabs - they're yummy, to us a sign of a good oyster (these were delicious - from NC) and jokingly say that they are good luck. Enjoy!

                                (I don't eat raw oysters - don't like them and wouldn't eat the crabs raw).

                                1. I had no idea of the existence of these little critters. Got a dozen oysters from Whole Foods, took 'em home and shucked 'em. Several had little pink inclusion bodies. What the hell are those? Like the bloodspot in an egg? Like debris pearlized? Like some weird oyster tumor? Did not expect crunch- generally prefer my oysters not to crunch!
                                  Glad to discover they are part of life's rich panoply, which I guess would have applied to the other options as well.
                                  Surprised by the squeemishness expressed. The oysters are alive too. Still, on the whole, I am after oysters, not a mixed plate. Given my druthers, i'd rather oysters without.

                                  1. I am glad to have found this information. My husband likes the salty Chincoteauge oysters. We buy them for home and he shucks them himself. We have had these crabs in about 10 percent of the oysters. He eats bay oysters as well, and have never seen them in those. Glad to know other people has seen these things!! For the record, he does not eat them..

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: dmtrice

                                      Eat many different oysters and have seen the teeny crabs in Chincoteagues more than any other kind. Have not seen for many years as l was told there are no oysters from Chincoteague anymore and all you see have been brought in from the gulf.

                                    2. I've never seen these crabs (but I mostly order oysters at restaurants). Do restaurants typically serve the oysters with the crabs or do they clean out the crabs?

                                      1. If the crab feeds on any grit present in the oyster, keeping the bivalve clean, wouldn't it be "sandy" to eat?

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: GraydonCarter

                                          crabs don't typically eat grit, aside from what they happen to eat along with their regular food sources (dead stuff, algae, all the way to small shrimp and fish)

                                        2. Think of it as a bonus. Eat well!

                                          1. Sounds like those oysters were getting around a little bit, if ya know what i mean

                                            1. Fascinating thread!

                                              I never heard of pea/oyster crabs let alone saw one or ate one. From the northeast I prefer cold water local oysters. Really did not like the warm water oysters in Nola other then paneed. I wonder if this is a southern atlantic thing? I wonder as oysters have become a booming farming business, if the she crabs squatting in the oysters are prevalent?

                                              thanks for topping this oldish thread, although I'd be afraid to swallow a live pea crab for fear it would tear up my uvula in protest.

                                              1. This is an update. For those of you interested, Gourmet (1950) has a couple recipes for oyster (Pea) crabs, "Oyster Crabs Poulette' and "Fried Oyster Crabs", page 251. The only problem I see is acquiring enough crabs for a meal or two.

                                                1. I had this happen for the first time tonight. I was in shock so I Googled it and found this article. The next 3 in the batch also had them. Wish I had thought to take a photo!

                                                  1. Found one in our oysters tonite. We are in MN and bought them in Cash Wise. Quite a surprise! (And bigger than a pea!)

                                                    2 Replies
                                                    1. re: Jacksmack76

                                                      Wow, I've never seen a pea crab, so thanks for the picture. Is this a grown adult, or a baby crab? It doesn't look completely developed. Cute little thing, although I probably would freak if I saw it in my food.

                                                      1. re: breadchick

                                                        does not need as hard an exoskeleton as lives in oyster and oyster shell protects it, thus l assume it is full size, all l ahve seen look pretty much like the picture.

                                                    2. I just purchased 4 dozen James River oysters from a fantastic seafood market next to Nasa's Langley Research Center, and 6 of the first dozen had pea crabs in them. I ate them raw. They were fine. We're going to steam another dozen tomorrow and will eat them again (if found). Must admit, having grown-up on the Chesapeake Bay, I enjoy eating raw oysters on the half-shell and ingesting some mud... Reminds me of home and lets me know where they came from. Nothing against farm-raised oysters, but a little mud goes a long way!

                                                      1. I'm glad I found this thread! Born and raised in Florida eating gulf oysters, I've never seen these pea crabs. For a change, I just had a 100 bag flown in from Virginia and probably half of them had these little guys. I put them to the side and tossed them into the inter coastal by my house. Wonder if they'll live. Here's a pic of a few that I gathered in a half shell.

                                                        1. my husband and I got a huge box of maybe 50 oysters and so far now have 13 mini crabs in water in Tupperware..lol we had no idea what to do with them since we eat our oysters raw and have only done it ourselves once before now as we usually order them out.. I guess we just throw them out? we didn't eat them.. I grew up in Florida so never seen this before we are in NC but I believe the oysters were from up north.

                                                          1 Reply
                                                          1. re: floridaseafoodchick

                                                            Why throw them out when you can eat 'em?