Tunisia, Carthage Crabs emerging as new source of blue swimming crab
Amir Ben Ameur never expected to find himself in the blue swimming crab business.
Five years ago, blue swimming crab (Portunus pelagicus) didn’t even exist in his home waters around Sfax, Tunisia, in the western Mediterranean.
In 2014, Ben Ameur and the fishermen in Sfax started noticing something disturbing: crabs they had never seen before were showing up in their nets, cutting to pieces an increasing share of the catch.
Whether the crabs found their way to Tunisia through natural migration or after being introduced to the area inadvertently by humans, blue swimming crab had discovered a hospitable environment in which to thrive.
“It is a very suitable habitat for food and shelters along its coast, as the shallow water makes it easy for the crabs to swim and prey,” Ben Ameur told SeafoodSource via email. “Additionally, Mediterranean waters tend to be much fresher and saltier than in open ocean locations especially by coastlines, [and] this makes the best habitat for blue swimming crab.”
At first, the local fishermen were not happy about the newly present crustaceans. More than 1,100 fisherman affected by the blue swimming crab invasion launched protests in 2015 and 2016, the government moved to assist them by offering subsidies to help purchase their catch.
“The crabs harmed them so much to the point they named it ‘Daesh’ [the Arabic word for the Islamic State or ISIS] as it is considered a terror that terrorizes fishermen and cuts their fished fish into piece and ruins the nets,” Ben Ameur said. “Some fishermen used actually to throw it back to the sea and its price dropped so much.”
Domestic demand for the crab was and remains practically nonexistent, as the species is not part of the local culinary heritage, Ben Ameur said. But Ben Ameur and his father, Faouzi Ben Ameur, knew the blue swimming crab was in demand internationally, and seizing the opportunity, they converted a fishing business into Carthage Crabs, which now specializes in the export of Tunisian blue swimming crab.
“We see our business as a social enterprise to help local fishermen sell their crabs as there is no local demand for it,” Ben Ameur said. “The fishing community in Tunisia is a close -knit community and we are all committed to establishing Tunisia as a major player in the blue crab and seafood export business. “
Carthage Crabs does its own fishing and also purchases crab from local fishermen using nets or trawls. It has expanded into processing and packing – it now is capable of producing more than 100 metric tons of crab per month – and even has a small research and development department, comprised of Ben Ameur’s father.
“We are working on improving the blue crab fishing technology in our shores,” Ben Ameur said. “My dad is currently developing a crab cage like the ones used in Southeast Asia. It's better as it keeps the crab [fresher] and also protects it from breaking some parts.”
The company has found increasing interest for their crab in Asian markets including South Korea, Thailand, China, and Malaysia, as well as in Australia, Ben Ameur said. In the first six month of 2017, Tunisia exported 120.6 metric tons of crab; that number rocketed 1,102 percent in volume to 1,450 metric tons valued at EUR 3 million (USD 4.8 million) in the first six month of 2018, according to Ben Ameur. The United States is another potentially lucrative market, but Carthage Crabs has not yet shipped any product to the U.S., Ben Ameur added.
“I am trying to reach out to potential buyers – wholesalers, importers, sea food processors – in [the] U.S. to introduce our high-quality Mediterranean crab,” he said. “We have very competitive price[s] and we aim to attract the attention of U.S. market players. I am pretty sure amid the Sino-U.S.A. trade war, U.S. importers will look for more stable alternative. Our company mission is to give this alternative.”
Carthage Crabs offers frozen crab, as well as dehydrated and fresh frozen products, including half-cutted crab and crab meat.
As a means of organizing the nascent industry, Carthage Crabs is leading an effort to establish a National Crab Association that would help the government learn more about the blue swimming crab fishery and the best means to regulate it.
While not much research has yet been done on the newly introduced link in the marine food chain in Tunisia, Ben Ameur said anecdotally that while fish populations appear to be down, fishermen are finding more octopus and squid in local waters, as they feed on the crab.
Despite the difficulties the blue swimming crab has created for his industry, Ben Ameur said he’s more positive than ever about the future of the sector.
“Today the blue crab industry in Tunisia is thriving,” Ben Ameur. “Its quantities in our sea is so huge, it's like blue crab in Tunisia will never run out.”