Thursday, November 29, 2012

Crab Knuckle Banding - Keep Your Hard Crabs Alive

Here's some interesting information from Tim Visel of "The Search for Megalops." I meant to post it this summer, but it got lost in the busy field/crab season. Photo credit: Abigail Visel.

Blue Crab Information for Fishermen

Knuckle Joint Banding Process - The Knuckle Bander®

Willard Visel– September 2010

Timothy C. Visel

Updated, August 2012

Reducing Capture Mortality in the Recreational Blue Crab Fishery


“Photographs of Banding Process

Now Available by Abigail Visel”



The Blue Crab is a popular seafood species.  It habitats coastal bays along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and is found on many seafood menus offered by shoreline restaurants.  As such over 90% of the catch is served hot/steamed; almost no consumer (home live purchase) market exists contrary to the American lobster.  The reasons for this difference can be found in the painful bite of the blue crab claw – an aggressive feature that excludes most live purchases for post harvest retail operations.


Most blue crabs are marketed in dry bushel baskets where shipping and claw mortality is high sometimes over 50% in warm weather.  Because of the unrestrained claws fighting mortality continues in both dry and wet (tank) sea water systems.  The blue crab is an aggressive cannibal that crushes other crabs and makes package for retail (home) purchases nearly impossible.  Between shipping and holding mortalities it is not uncommon that 50% perish before cooking.  Because the product is kept cool and quickly steamed in large quantities the industry has not invested in live retail sales.  Few fish markets can handle live hard shell blue crabs and consumers purchasing them live face injury.  This has caused per piece crab purchases by consumers from live retail markets to be virtually unknown. 


The Knuckle Bander (banding process) has been developed by Willard Visel of 10 Blake Street, Ivoryton, CT (2010).  First attempts included banding the claws together in an outreached position but that resulted in an unnatural position, making packing and storage difficult.  After numerous other attempts to control claw movements a modified Lobster Claw Banding tool was used to band the blue crab knuckle (claw point) but not the claw.  This has resulted in a normal appearing crab but its claws have now been held (restricted) to its body – making aggressive attack virtually impossible.  This has resulted in benefits to the retail operator (several have reported to Will that mortality has dropped to almost zero) and made retail sales (per piece) possible.  Reports from market sales and direct consumer sales have been very positive with many comments “why didn’t someone think of this before.”


This could impact the entire blue crab industry as home sales is at zero now and most people who like crab do so themselves and handle the product as a recreational fishing activity. 


At present a bushel of hard shell “jimmies” retail sells for $120 dollars and contain about 80 crabs, which when shipped in a dry basket 50 crabs arrive alive, (comments from area fish markets) and subject to another 25% 48 hour holding loss – so a retail per piece is about $4.50 a crab beyond the retail market.  At $1.50 each to $2.00 each large live (Jumbo 6 to 6.5”) crab (no mortality) retail stores can offer live crabs about $3.00 to $3.50 each (live Jumbos) with almost no mortality and have a product that consumers can more safety handle.  The claw itself is not banded, only the knuckle – but similar to the American Lobster, only a reduction to getting bitten has reduced the hazards of purchasing them.  The same band that is used to band lobster claws is used to band the knuckle joint of the blue crabs.


Since 2007, about 1,000 banded blue crabs have been sold or consumed without a complaint, only “praise.”  When kept moist they have held well in cooler storage in recirculation tanks; no live crabs experienced claw loss or injury.  This has opened markets for consumers who cannot crab for themselves – elderly, non-mobile and others who cannot catch (have access) on their own.  A demand exists for live blue crab in sauces or steamed with Old Bay™ seasoning; water steamed and picked crab meat.  A significant market exists that could benefit from such a process.  Live blue crabs could soon become a regular item at seafood stores along the coast.  Bands are to remain over the joint until cooking is completed - the same as with the lobsters.


The Process –


The crab is placed into a low sided plastic tub or “banding box.” The operator using the bander, wearing heavy gloves positions the crab so the claws are in the swimming – non attack or fighting position the knuckle (or elbow) protrudes to accept a heavy rubber band around the joint. Willard uses the standard lobster claw bander and lobster bands available commercially.  A modified lobster band tool (a large jaw) is used to open a rubber band and pushes it over the claw joint.       


A repeat of the process is done to the remaining claw.  When complete both claws are now in the swimming, not attacking (biting) position.  Crabs can continue to walk, swim and breathe in seawater with no effects.  Although the crab can still bite, it prefers to keep quiet in the cooler (no fighting) and handled easily by the rear.   


The banding process for the hard shell blue crabs is believed to be unique to Willard Visel’s blue crab marketing operation (2010).


Update: August 2012 – Tim Visel

Willard fished for crabs with a friend, Dave Krug in 2010.  Soon after this fact sheet was produced sidewalk stands in the Old Saybrook area opened and had signs: 2 blue crabs for 50 cents and the market for live banded crabs soon disappeared.  The operation had Will and Dave working in a team, one would crab, the other would band.  It (the banding worked well) and certainly makes handling the crab easier.  Crabs held in recirculation systems at the Sound School lived 40 days without any significant mortality.


This information is being released now as a way to reduce recreational blue crab catch loss; several crabbers have commented about this loss and crab spoilage in high heat.  I have seen several buckets of crabs lost from bleed out from fighting, injuries the past two weeks and crabs, like lobsters, spoil very quickly in high heat. It has been very hot of late. 


In summary these crabs are too valuable to waste, a current market guide from southern areas list $165/bushel with about 75 crabs to the bushel, slightly over $2.00 a crab.  Live shipments from southern states often contain a summer shipping disclaimer.  Thirty percent may perish during the trip north; the gills dry and in high heat crabs quickly die.  Keeping crabs cool, uninjured and gills moist is the key to reducing holding and shipping losses.


Injury from claw damage fighting is the leading (cause for significant recreational mortality, crab “blood” so to speak is hard to see but upon close examination it appears a slightly bluish almost translucent “jelly”.  It is a soft and rubbery and difficult to clot in warm weather.  Although summer crabbers keep crabs in small pails of water, in hot weather they often run out of oxygen and also perish by suffocation.


Lastly, banding makes handling easier and assists packing in coolers for the trip home.  This summer I have seen some crabbers fill a five gallon bucket pail with large crabs (about 40 in numbers) only to see massive injury bleeding and most likely high crab losses for a long day in hot weather.


Then under the Process section change clumped to placed, the crab is placed


 “Photographs Of Banding Process Now Available Photographs by Abigail Visel”


Several recent conversations with crabbers especially over the August 4-5 weekend in which I observed significant capture mortality, two crabbers were interested in the banding process, but without pictures it was very difficult to explain or describe.


They asked if some photographs showing the process were available on line and I did not think so, and they thought seeing pictures of the process and tools would Help.  A local bait and tackle store Captain Morgan’s of Madison felt the same way.  Could I do a demonstration?  On August 4 at 8:30 am I tried the Clinton Town Crab Float on the Indian River at a low tide.  I only needed a couple of crabs for the Captain Morgan demonstration and this has been a good spot.  At 74 degrees and low tide I had 22 shorts (mostly 3 to 4 inch males and two 5.25 crabs) in one hour--enough for a quick demonstration but not  indicative of the sizes caught recently.


I then tried the Essex town dock for two crabs for Abigail to photograph that evening, again needing only two and at 6:10 pm the tide had just turned at 74 degrees  it was a little warm but I put in five lines with chicken legs; Immediately I  had hookups and started catching 6 to 7 inch crabs.  While this was happening I met and talked with Ronald Angelo of the Connecticut Department of Economic Development who watched as all five lines were being pulled of the dock.  Final count, 45 minutes of fishing, 21 large crabs.  Between 6 and 7.5 inches, missed 8 returned 6.  The photographs of the banding process has a 6.5 inch and 7.5 inch crab.  The set of photographs are available from



I’m always open to ideas and suggestions about the process.