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Munchies

This Fishmonger Is Making Invasive Species Easier to Eat

“One of my main goals when I started this company five years ago was to serve sustainable and ecologically friendly options."

by Ian Burke
Jan 17 2019, 7:00pm

Photo by the Portland Press Herald via Getty Images.

Ever since invasive European green crabs arrived in North America in the early 1800s, scientists from around the country have struggled to find ways to stop them from destroying the local clam populations. If the crabs get their way, they eat native soft-shell clams so aggressively that fewer than 0.01 percent of clams survive beyond their first year—well before they’re ready to be harvested for commercial purposes. But Vinny Milburn, owner and fishmonger of the NYC-based wholesale fish company Greenpoint Fish & Lobster, is pushing an alternative solution: crab stock.

“The [green crabs] are just everywhere,” Milburn explains. “All you have to do is put down a crab pot with some mackerel in it, or some other oily fish bait, and set them. You come back a couple hours later, pull them up, and they’re just full of crabs.”

Milburn started out selling the green crabs whole to various restaurants around New York. “There were probably a half-dozen restaurants that were taking [them], but they were only taking about ten, twenty pounds of crab at a time.” Now, though, Milburn buys the green crabs in 600-pound increments and makes tons of rich green crab stock. Then, Milburn and his crew freeze the stock and sell it for ten dollars per quart at their fish market on Nassau Avenue in Brooklyn. “They’re just not enough meat in the crabs,” he says. “Trying to pull the meat out isn’t worth it. Making stock is about all you can do with them.”

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Milburn.

Milburn sources his green crabs from oyster farmers in Duxbury, MA, who he pays to trap and ship large quantities of the invasive species to his warehouse in Queens, NY. By paying a premium for oyster farmers to haul in green crabs—which usually bring in less than a buck per pound—he makes it worth the farmers’ while. “One of my main goals when I started this company five years ago was to serve sustainable and ecologically friendly options,” Milburn explains. “The best ones are invasive species, by far. I’ve been selling [green crabs] for about five years, but they’ve been an issue for much longer than that. It’s been something we’ve been pushing for a long time, but just this year, for some reason, people started taking an interest in them, which is great.”

Milburn works mainly in wholesale, but tries to push green crab stock on restaurant customers whenever he can. And apparently, it’s working. NYC restaurants that buy the stuff include notable spots such as Seamore's, Maialino, Osakana, and Charlie Bird.

Unfortunately, though, harvesting green crabs during the winter is a challenge—it’s just too cold. “But when they get active and start crawling back into the traps in the spring, that’s when we’ll really pull them out on take as much as possible,” Milburn explains.

But while Milburn is thrilled that the public is taking an interest in green crabs, he worries that they’ll go down the same path as lionfish and other “trendy” invasive species.

“Lionfish is always hot,” Milburn says, “but honestly, it’s a contrived market. Don’t get me wrong, the lionfish is absolutely detrimental to the environment and it’s best if we kill them all because they’re destroying the reefs and everything, but it caught on in such a way that normal people can’t get it.”

And when you do get it, Milburn stresses, it’s prohibitively expensive.

“Whole Foods, Publix, and Safeway have standing orders at docks for 10,000 pounds, and [the lionfish] all have to be caught by divers,” he explains. “At the end of the week, there’s maybe six or seven thousand pounds. You can’t fill 30,000 pound orders with that, so the market doesn’t react well. When the lionfish does make its way up to New York, it ends up being six or seven dollars whole, and then the filet ends up being around $30. It’s kind of hard to justify something that’s 30 dollars a pound—and that $30 isn’t even retail.”

At the end of the day, however, catching the invasive lionfish isn’t a bad thing at all. “It’s just a fish that you can’t really make any money on, so a lot of people shy away from that,” Milburn says. “I think getting awareness out about these species is great, but I think it’s best to consider them in a bigger picture of how we can be more responsible stewards of the ocean and the environment as a whole.”

To prevent these market spikes, Milburn wants seafood-lovers to change their habits in a way that positively affects the environment. “I think the question that I get asked the most is ‘Oh, you’re the sustainable seafood guy—what fish should I eat?,’” Milburn says. “And that’s the completely wrong way of thinking. It should be a more cohesive, holistic approach. There’s no secret fish that we can eat to undo all of the destruction unsustainable seafood has done to the ocean.”

Milburn encourages shoppers to ask questions and educate themselves on how external factors such as changing seasons alter the availability of certain fish. “We have people that come into our retail store every single day and just buy salmon,” Milburn says. “Which is fine, but you can’t have the same thing all the time and expect it to always be there. You have to be willing to listen to people when they tell you something is good, and be willing to take a risk on something you may have never tried.”

In addition to consumers changing their habits, Milburn also praises fisheries that practice sustainable aquaculture. “There’s a farm that I’ve been working with in upstate New York that’s farm-raising steelhead trout in recirculating aquaculture systems,” Milburn says. “And they’re in Hudson—nowhere near the ocean.” That’s something that’s really admirable, he explains, since raising fish inland takes a lot of money, time, and effort. “It’s very tricky,” he says, “so to be able to do it is an admirable thing. I just think that anyone that’s giving sustainable seafood a shot and thinking a little differently about the proteins that they consume is someone I admire.”