By Kielon Hilaire. Life for Herman Preira of Arima is incredibly simple. Ask people what they do for a living and rarely the response is, “I’m a crab collector.”
Preira has been catching crabs for over 15 years and says he will continue doing it for another millennium.
He states that what drew him to his nifty profession was the fact that it led him to enjoy a rather relaxing life. “No pesky traffic to fight through each day, no good-for-nothing boss to answer to, and no daily stress of putting up with annoying and tittle-tattle co-workers,” he said.
He believes that living on the ocean’s brink will always remain a thought for so many other dreamers. Catching crab is accomplished by a simple but ingenious method. Living near the sea naturally allows you to see thousands of crabs roaming across the earth every year, and that is all the motivation Preira needs.
Why not set a “giant rat trap”? Clever, isn’t it? Preira says every year crabs spread all over Trinidad in colonies of millions. He says a female crab takes about 18 months to become fully grown, ultimately producing between 50,000 and 70,000 eggs (with an incubation period of 3 to 4 months) during her laying period. Even if you are not good at maths, surely all those zeroes could get your head spinning. Simply multiply 50,000 by 100 crabs and you already have 5 million of the creepy little critters.
Preira uses homemade crab traps to capture crabs. He says they are fairly sizeable (almost two feet in length), made of bamboo, and inside the trap’s hollow nest is a man-made rig that is craftily set to go off whenever the crab makes its way inside the bamboo with the intention of stealing the hot pepper, coconut, pine, or lime bait. But contrastingly to the physics of a rat trap, a crab trap does not harm the crab. All it does is lock the crab inside the trap itself.
Traps are placed on the shores on a daily basis, and are checked at least once per day. Preira has made it his duty since the 90s to head down to the shores from as early as 7 o’clock each morning to set the endless traps he articulately designed.
After all the easy work is over, the real task begins. Once the crabs lose their freedom to the traps, Preira reaps his investments and carefully sits and plans what must be done with them. The majority of crabs are used by Preira and his customers to create one of Trinidad and Tobago’s signature dishes, crab and dumpling. Some crabs he keeps as pets, and the remainder he shares with family and friends. At the time I was invited into his home, some of his “pets” were idly roaming about his outdoor premises. The only possible game to play was “snap my finger”.
Tying the legs of each crab together
Preira had been busily preparing a “crab vine” for a customer during the interview. He ties all the legs of each crab together with a solid vine and then he further ties this onto one long vine. In the end, the crab vine closely resembles the strings which are often cluttered with Christmas tree light bulbs — just picture crabs replacing the coloured bulbs.
It is true that crabs are cherished delicacies that are second to the more coveted lobsters. But there are a few facts one might like to consider when comparing the two. First and most important, lobsters are very expensive! Sure lobsters are bigger, sweeter, and are often labelled as being more sophisticated, but think about it, as good as they are how many people can afford to eat them every day?
The difference with crabs is that there is almost an infinite supply of them. Crabs cost much less than one-tenth the price of a full grown lobster, making it possible to eat them as much as one might eat hops bread. Preira’s prices range from TT $4.50 to $12 and he sells them in the Arima market.
Preira shares a few other interesting facts about crabs: In order to tell the sex of the crabs you simply flip them over and it is fairly obvious that the female always has a much larger underbelly than the male. Typically, she was designed that way in order for her pouch to contain her eggs. Crabs also release a distress signal when they are in danger, in the form of a froth-like substance.
Preira explains that crabs are generally spotted in two colours: brown and blue. The blue crabs, known as water crabs, are more commonly seen and the brown ones are the mountain types. Mountain crabs are less likely to be encountered since heavy rains need to bathe the mountains in order to chase them out of their home crevices.
Preira says there are two different times that you would most likely encounter a “crab party” (crabs seen in such abundance that the ocean’s music could make them dance): anytime during the months of June to December (T&T’s rainy season) and at night-time whenever the moon is full and causes the tides to grow high.
Finally, Preira gladly shares his experience of being attacked by a crab. He says that at one time recently, a crab claw had clung onto his finger for about half an hour. He had a bunch of them inside a barrel and was inserting some grass into the container to separate the crabs from fighting with each other. The crab saw its meat and took a hearty snap at his delicious finger, leaving Preira with only its claw for him to remember the experience. Each time he tried to remove the claw that clamped down on his finger, the pain worsened to horrific extents.
Since the crab’s claw had been no longer part of its body, Herman merely waited for the life in the claw to drain out itself, bearing the pain all the while. He simply removed the crab’s arm and immediately soaked his finger in ice water. “Try to imagine sharp edged pliers squeezing your finger with maximum force if you want to know how it felt,” he said.
According to Preira, catching crabs is a whole lot of fun once you know what you are doing. While some people do it as a hobby, others do it to make a decent living. Although Preira may not be a millionaire just yet, there are still plenty more crabs for him to catch and plenty more “crab and dumpling” menus to fill.
November 2011 – Issue 1 www.sweettntmagazine.com
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