The coconut crab, also known as the robber crab or palm thief, is a species of terrestrial hermit crab found throughout many tropical islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Despite its name, the coconut crab is not a true crab, but rather a hermit crab that lacks a shell. As an adult, this crab can grow to up to 3 feet across and weigh up to 9 pounds, making it the largest land-living arthropod in the world. But why can’t you eat this massive crab? Here are some quick answers:
- Coconut crabs are endangered and protected in many areas
- Their meat contains toxins that can cause illness if consumed raw
- They have very little meat compared to their overall size
- They are difficult to catch and not farmed for food
In this article, we’ll explore the reasons why the coconut crab is not a viable food source in more detail.
Coconut Crabs are Endangered
Perhaps the main reason why coconut crabs cannot be eaten is that they are considered an endangered or threatened species throughout their range. Coconut crabs are endemic to remote islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, places like the Seychelles, Christmas Island, and the Cook Islands. They were once abundant on these islands. However, habitat destruction, pollution, and overharvesting by humans have caused coconut crab populations to decline significantly.
Coconut crabs are now classified as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. They are also listed in Appendix I of CITES which prohibits international trade of the species. Many islands and countries have enacted laws and regulations to protect coconut crabs, making harvesting and consumption illegal. For instance, it is prohibited to harvest coconut crabs in Australia and Christmas Island without a permit. In the Cook Islands, all harvesting of coconut crabs is banned.
Researchers estimate that coconut crab populations have declined by at least 50% in the last few decades alone. A study on Christmas Island examined crab harvests between 1986 and 2003 and found a steep decline in the average weight and claw size of crabs being caught over this time period. Heavier crabs with bigger claws were selectively targeted first, indicating a severe decline in mature individuals.
The reasons for the decline are not surprising. Increased human settlement and development on remote tropical islands has led to the destruction and fragmentation of the crab’s rainforest habitat. Pollution from agricultural runoff and livestock operations can impact the health of crabs. And finally, overharvesting for food or the pet trade decimates local populations. With their slow growth, late sexual maturity, and dependence on forest habitat, coconut crabs are profoundly impacted by these factors.
With copra and coconut plantations replacing their habitat and overharvesting for food, the survival of coconut crabs now depends on protecting their remaining habitat and limiting collection. Any harvesting must be done sustainably with permits and quotas to prevent further declines. Preserves, national parks, and regulated harvesting help protect populations on some islands. In areas without protections, coconut crab populations are increasingly imperiled.
For conservation reasons alone, the coconut crab is not an animal that can be legally or sustainably harvested in most locations. Their endangered status means that eating this animal is strictly off limits.
Setting aside the conservation status of coconut crabs, there are other important reasons why they do not make good fare. Coconut crabs possess a unique toxin in their tissues that can sicken or even kill people who eat them. Eating the raw meat of coconut crabs poses a real health risk.
Coconut Crab Poisoning
The flesh of coconut crabs contains a toxalbumin compound closely related to that found in poisonous pufferfish. When eaten raw, this neurotoxin is not destroyed and can cause severe symptoms known as coconut crab poisoning or katakan poisoning.
Documented cases of poisoning have occurred in locations where coconut crabs are harvested like the Marshall Islands and Vanuatu. In the 1940s, a scientific expedition in the South Pacific famously became ill after consuming improperly prepared crab.
The toxins found in coconut crabs impact our nervous system. Initial symptoms include nausea, numbness, tingling, and dizziness which start within a few hours of ingesting the crab. Paralysis, uncontrolled vomiting, failing vision, coma, and even death can occur if larger amounts of the toxin are consumed.
There is no antidote for the poison found in coconut crabs. Supportive hospital care is needed for several days until the toxin naturally clears from the body. This highlights why coconut crab meat must always be thoroughly cooked by boiling or baking to denature and destroy the dangerous toxins.
Risk of Eating Raw
For this reason, eating raw coconut crab meat is extremely hazardous. Examples of risky traditional dishes include katakan which is raw crab marinated in coconut milk, as well as raw crab meat sashimi. The toxins are not destroyed by marinating, pickling, or slicing the raw flesh. These methods cannot make coconut crab safe to eat raw.
Furthermore, eating raw crab meat also introduces the risk of bacterial infections like salmonella and vibrio. Overall, consumption of raw or undercooked coconut crab is not recommended. Toxic and infectious risks far outweigh any culinary benefits.
Low Meat Yield
Beyond toxicity issues, the coconut crab also provides very little edible meat compared to its overall size. The proportion of edible meat to body mass is far lower than other crab varieties and seafood. This makes harvesting crabs for food impractical and unsustainable.
The coconut crab’s body is made up of a massive abdomen and cephalothorax covered by a thick exoskeleton. The abdomen alone makes up 50-70% of their total body weight. Only a small portion of body mass comes from muscle tissue and edible meat in the claws and legs. One analysis found that only about 10-20% of total body weight yields edible crab meat.
Unlike marine crabs which have a higher meat content in the 20-30% range, the coconut crab’s terrestrial lifestyle and protective exoskeleton require more muscle and mass be dedicated to structural support rather than appendages with meat. Their massive crushing claws also contain more connective tissue than meat. Overall, the coconut crab is not built for meat production.
The coconut crab’s giant size is deceiving when considering how much edible food it provides. Relative to terrestrial arthropods like insects, they may offer more meat. But compared to marine crabs and seafood, the yield is minuscule for the effort required to catch them.
For example, a 3-pound coconut crab may provide only 6-8 ounces of picked meat. In contrast, a 3-pound marine crab like Dungeness yields closer to 1 pound of meat. The difference is due to the coconut crab’s thicker exoskeleton and heavier body mass. Such a low yield makes harvesting coconut crabs wasteful andunsustainable.
Difficult to Farm or Catch
Compared to crabs adapted to aquatic environments and marine food webs, the coconut crab is extremely challenging to catch or farm for meat production. Terrestrial hermit crabs like coconut crabs could never be farmed at scales comparable to shrimp, clams, oysters, and other seafood. Their life history traits make commercial harvesting or aquaculture production essentially impossible.
Coconut crabs take an exceptionally long time to reach full maturity compared to other crustaceans. They grow slowly due to their large ultimate size and the challenges of life on land. Coconut crabs do not reach sexual maturity until about 5 years of age. Growth continues and full size may not be attained for another 10 years beyond that.
This drawn-out maturation makes farming coconut crabs unrealistic. Most harvested seafood like shrimp, clams, or finfish reach harvest size in months to a few years at most. Waiting over a decade for coconut crabs to fully mature is simply not practical for aquaculture compared to other options.
Once mature, reproducing and raising juvenile coconut crabs in captivity also poses challenges. After mating, females release eggs into the ocean. The tiny larvae hatching from these eggs float in the plankton for weeks, feeding on marine microorganisms. Eventually they settle on land as juvenile crabs.
Mimicking this complex early life history is highly difficult in an artificial setting. While someresearchers have achieved limited breeding success in captivity, the difficulties mean large-scale farming is unlikely. Collection from wild populations remains the only option.
Coconut crabs rely on specific tropical habitats like sandy beaches near forests that provide food, shelter, and breeding sites. The fragmentation and destruction of these habitats already threatens wild populations. But it also limits where coconut crabs could be collected or farmed. For commercial production, dense populations concentrated in easily accessible areas are needed. But the crab’s remote island habitats mean this is impractical.
Overall, the habitat dependence, mating behaviors, and slow growth of coconut crabs preclude large-scale farming similar to other seafood. Catching crabs from scattered wild populations is possible but not sustainable.
No Commercial Fishery
There is no commercial fishery or market for coconut crabs for the reasons outlined already. While some organizations allow small-scale harvesting under permit for cultural food practices, the crab is not a commercially exploited food resource. No extensive fishing fleets target coconut crabs for mass consumption.
Lack of consumer awareness and demand plays a role. Coconut crabs are obscure outside of tropical regions where they naturally occur. Their intimidating appearance also limits appeal to broader markets compared to other seafood. Without an established demand or cuisine built around coconut crabs, no market exists to drive large-scale harvesting.
Even if demand existed, the supply constraints would remain. As discussed, challenges like slow maturation, habitat dependence, meat toxicity, and conservation status all severely limit the ability to reliably obtain coconut crabs in commercial quantities. With no viable supply chain in place, no commercial fishery could thrive.
Given population declines and the inherent vulnerability of this species, harvesting coconut crabs for mass consumption would quickly prove unsustainable. Their life history leaves populations ill-equipped to withstand intensive exploitation. As protected species, unchecked harvesting would also violate conservation laws.
With no demand, no viable supply, and sustainability barriers, there is simply no commercial coconut crab fishery in existence. Obtaining a crab for food means patiently capturing an individual from the wild.
Specialty Food Item
The unique qualities and challenges of harvesting coconut crabs relegate it to a specialty food item for locals and adventurous tourists. While not a practical everyday protein source, customs and culture surrounding coconut crab cuisine preserve its place as an esteemed dish.
For many Pacific island cultures, coconut crab remains an important traditional food central to ceremonies and celebrations. Special harvesting permits allow Pacific Islanders living in the crab’s natural range to collect limited numbers for cultural events and consumption.
When prepared properly by knowledgeable locals, the risks of toxicity are avoided. The prized meat also enters local commerce as a luxury item commanding premium prices for its scarcity. Tourists may have opportunities to taste coconut crab when visiting an area where harvesting occurs.
Those seeking exotic and adventurous eats may also seek out coconut crab. Wildlife TV personalities like Andrew Zimmern have sampled coconut crab as part of shows exploring unique foods from around the world. While not commonplace, one can find coconut crab at specialty restaurants where obscurity, novelty, and rareness drive demand.
However, even specialty harvesting and consumption should only occur where populations are monitored and managed to be sustainable. Any commercial sale must limit collection based on species status and put conservation first. With precautions and regulations, traditional practices and novelty-seeking can co-exist with coconut crab preservation.
In summary, the biology, life history, and protected status of the coconut crab prevent it from being a viable mainstream food item. Concerns over sustainability, meat yield, toxicity, and lack of commercial production relegate coconut crab consumption primarily to cultural practices and specialty foods for the adventurous. While not a practical protein source, regulated and responsible enjoyment of coconut crab as a cherished delicacy can continue without threatening this unique species. Careful management of wild populations and their habitat is crucial for allowing this iconic animal to persist.