A Crab Named Jonah
By Christine Sampson
A bit of misfortune on the open water has the tendency to call to sailors’ and fishermen’s minds the Biblical figure Jonah, who brought a storm upon the ship he boarded to avoid his preaching duties, and who was later swallowed by a whale.
A particular breed of northeastern stone crab, distinguished by its wide, puckered, brown-red body, very hard shell and black-tipped claws and found in 300-foot waters more than 50 miles off the coast of Montauk, draws its name from that story.
“Jonah meant bad luck, and if you had these crabs in your traps, it meant you didn’t have lobsters in the traps,” says Anthony Sosinski, a lobsterman who, along with his friend and partner John Aldridge, actually seeks out the Jonah crabs as well as lobsters on weekly trips on their boat, the Anna Mary.
But Sosinski and Aldridge knew there was more to those crabs than just the legend — like its sweeter-than-most taste — and they also knew they were the only ones on the East End intentionally catching the little-known crustacean that has long been considered a nuisance known for stealing the bait and clogging up the lobster traps.
“We actually like them better than lobster,” Sosinski tells a guest who visited the Anna Mary after it docked past midnight on Memorial Day with about 4,000 pounds of Jonah crabs in two of its tanks.
Trapped the same way lobsters are trapped, each crab is then handled individually as they come out of the trap. Sosinski and Aldridge throw back all the females and juveniles — anything less than five inches — and skip the trapping when the crabs are molting because their shells aren’t hard enough.
They have been catching Jonah crabs for several years after realizing there is a market for them on Long Island, particularly on the East End and in Queens, where, they said, Asian and Hispanic diners seem to enjoy them the most. They don’t fetch quite as much as Florida stone crabs, which get $20 to $30 a pound for their claws. “Since we started doing this, the price has gone up three times,” Sosinski said. “That’s just the demand.”
The food blog Plated calls the Jonah crab “the hidden gem of the Eastern seaboard,” and Citarella.com describes them as both sweet and briny.
Smaller than their King crab, Snow crab and Dungeness crab cousins, and known more for their claws and meat than their legs, Jonah crabs can be prepared in quite a few ways. Aldridge and Sosinksi offer suggestions for stuffing and barbeque dishes using their meat (see below). On his television show, celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse once marinated steamed Jonah crab claws in sherry wine, olive oil, lemon and garlic with a mignonette dipping sauce to complete the dish.
“It’s an under-utilized product. Not too many people ever get to see them,” Aldridge says. “I think it’s very sustainable and abundant.”
That’s because Jonah crabs can be harvested year-round, thanks to a sea-floor temperature that remains largely consistent — at least for now — even when the surface temperatures fluctuate with the seasons. But Aldridge and Sosinski no longer fish year-round. It’s just not economical, Sosinski says, nor is it kind to your body.
They sell to a fish market in Queens, whose employees drive all the way out to Montauk in the middle of the night to meet the Anna Mary when it docks, confirming that yes, indeed, Sosinski and Aldridge are the only two on Long Island catching these guys, because who the hell is going to repeatedly make that midnight drive from New York City for fun? They also sell to Multi Aquaculture Systems, Inc. in Amagansett and to a company that supplies food for marine life at aquariums.
“They want every pound that we can catch,” Sosinski says. “The faster we can get these done, I might be able to make last call at Liar’s.”
And so he and Aldridge, plus their deck hand, Dakota Quinn, the fresh-faced son of a friend of the two fishermen who has come from Oregon to work on the Anna Mary for the summer, get to work handling each crab a second time. They pull them out of the tanks and into buckets; the truck driver waits with a cigarette in his mouth, then another. From the buckets, the crabs go into crates that get weighed; an occasional ironic lobster caught in a Jonah crab trap is tossed to the side. The crates are packed into the refrigerated truck bound for Queens without giving the crabs the chance to see daylight.
“We do this at night because it’s cooler,” Sosinski says. “They don’t like to see heat. Plus, there’s the traffic.”
It isn’t long before he gets a finger caught in a crab claw, and it hurts even through the thick blue glove he’s wearing. In the process of freeing his finger, Sosinski accidentally flings a crab at one of the Anna Mary’s visitors. It’s not even dumb luck – it’s bound to happen once or twice a night, they say.
“It’s part of the game,” Sosinski says. “You’re dealing with things that have claws that are angry.”
Aldridge agrees, saying, “They’re fun until they bite you. Then they’re not fun.”
A Fishermen’s Tale
It’s safe to say John Aldridge and Anthony Sosinski have specialized recently in catching bad luck and turning it into something good — and Jonah crabs and lobsters are only part of that story.
They are, of course, the lobstermen who wrote the book “A Speck in the Sea: A Story of Survival and Rescue” based on Aldridge’s middle-of-the-night fall from the Anna Mary into the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean while his lifelong friend and partner Sosinski was asleep below deck. It also chronicles the successful rescue effort Sosinski launched in coordination with local fishermen, families and the U.S. Coast Guard.
That was July 23, 2013. Fast forward a couple of years after they started tossing around the idea of a book, which later took 18 months to complete, it was released on May 23 and the Weinstein Company is already developing it into a film.
“This movie is blowing up,” Sosinski told a recent visitor on the Anna Mary during a brief break from hauling Jonah crabs out of tanks and into crates to be weighed and sold. “My emails are not one every other day now. It’s like 15 at a time.”
Despite all the attention, Sosinski and Aldridge say they plan to continue fishing as a livelihood, although they’ll pause for the necessary promotional appearances. BookHampton in East Hampton will host a reading of “A Speck in the Sea” with the two authors on July 13 at 5 p.m.
“We catch lobster,” Sosinski said in a recent interview with The Sag Harbor Express, “and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”