May 8th, 2009

We meet the king


Today started off more catastrophically than usual. We didn’t just have flooded streets to contend with, but the electricity was out, the water was off and the cellphone networks were down. We were desperate to find some crab catchers to go out into the mangroves with, but we had no way to communicate with anyone. Collecting mangrove mud crabs is a major part of the economy of the Parnaíba Delta, providing a livelihood for thousands of people. Getting the crab story was one of the reasons I had come to the delta, and I was running out of time.

Walking to work Parnaíba-style. Jeremy and Elaine negotiate the floodwaters outside our pousada.

Walking to work Parnaíba-style. Jeremy and Elaine negotiate the floodwaters outside our pousada.

We tossed a coin and decided to take a taxi to the town of Luis Correia, where Elaine had earlier made contact with a journalist who had offered to help us. But her cellphone was down, and we didn’t know where she lived. We made inquiries at the mayor’s office, and in an instant our luck took a giant swing to the positive side. It turned out that the mayor himself was in the crab business. In fact, he told us he was the “rei do caranguejo”—king of crab. If this man couldn’t fix us up with a crab collector, no one could.

He ushered us into his office, swept aside the needs of a town without electricity, and started talking about what was clearly his favourite subject, the mangrove mud crab. He had been a crab boat captain for 15 years, then had set himself up as a crab distributor and now operates two seafood restaurants as well. He spoke of the life cycle of the crab, about the three months they spend in their burrows waiting for their old shell to fall off, and how when they finally emerge their shells are as soft as jelly. Within two tides the shell hardens into the solid body armour a crab needs to protect itself from predators.

The mayor of Luis Carreia, 'king of crab'

The mayor of Luis Carreia, Francisco Araújo Galeno, 'king of crab'

While we talked, the mayor’s secretary brought in trays of iced water and cups of hot sweet cafezinho, the strong black coffee Brazilians favour. Fanning himself vigorously with a piece of paper, Francisco Araújo Galeno told us about the closed season during summer when the crabs are mating. “This is the Carnival for crabs,” he said, “when the males and females are checking each other out—just like we do.”

I liked the mayor. He spoke passionately about the crucial part crab collecting played in the economic life of the delta. He scribbled notes on a pad as he talked and gesticulated with his hands. Glancing on the wall behind him, I noticed he was flanked by a painting of Christ and a crustacean montage, featuring a huge stuffed lobster and a mud crab. I asked him if he planned to run for president. He laughed and threw his hands up in the air. “Deus sabe!” he said—God knows.

I asked about shrimp farming in the area. Readers of this blog will know that shrimp farming is a major threat to mangroves. I wanted to know if the mayor ever found himself in difficult administrative position, on the one hand protecting the mangroves where the crabs live (the source of his own livelihood), and on the other encouraging new business activity such as aquaculture in the area.

He told me that with the slump in the shrimp export market, aquaculture expansion into mangrove areas wasn’t a problem at the moment. But he said he thought there needed to be a comprehensive study of the costs and benefits of farmed shrimp, to establish once and for all if the economic benefits of aquaculture was outweighed by the damage done to the mangrove environment and to economic activities such as crab collecting and ecotourism.

His own position was plain. “Our survival depends on mangroves,” he said.

From mud to menu, a mangrove crab undergoes a final clean before its appointment with the pot.

From mud to menu, a mangrove crab undergoes a final clean before its appointment with the pot.

Towards the end of the conversation, the secretary of fisheries, a young man named Luis ‘Rogerio’ de Sousa Filho, joined us and offered to take us to lunch at one of the dozens of beach restaurants where Brazilians go for a seafood feast.

He drove us to the place, and I visited the kitchen to watch fresh mud crabs being prepared. It’s nothing fancy. The kitchenhand kills them with the stab of a knife, washes them and cooks them in a pot of water. They are served au naturel, accompanied with crisp fried manioc flour and a vinegar salsa of tomato and coriander. Most diners sit at rough tables under thatched sun shelters on the sand, where you smash the crab legs and pincers on the tabletop with a wooden beater and extract the sweet white flesh with your teeth. The sweetest flesh of all is inside the body of the crab, where with each crunch you get a mouthful of some sort of interior shell structure (I’m not an expert on crustacean anatomy). The fiddliness of eating them is more than compensated by the taste.

Rogerio runs a wild shrimp-fishing business near the port. Across the river from his operation is a mangrove forest where crab collectors go. I asked if it would be possible to go out that afternoon, but he said the tide was too high. It would not be low enough until nightfall. But tomorrow, he promised, I could try my hand at catching the caranguejo.

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