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Buried Treasure : Santa Monica and Venice Beaches Breed the Tiny Sand Crabs That Fish Can’t Resist

To certain cognoscenti of fish bait, the waterline along the beach in Santa Monica and Venice is one of the Earth’s special places.

Nearly every morning in summer and fall, they scour the low tide for fresh miniature sand mounds as the waves recede, stalking their quarry, Emerita analoga --better known as the sand crab.

Fanning across the surf lines, the crabbers scoop the mud, sifting it until they get their translucent 1 1/2-inch-long treasures.

One of the top crabbers is 28-year-old Robert Pastel Jr. of West Los Angeles, who says he can catch 50 sand crabs an hour--an ability that earns him near-legendary status among his fellow diggers.

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But just as not all fish eggs are caviar, neither are all sand crabs valued treasures. To anglers, the plankton-eating crabs are valuable only while they are molting, their tender bodies succulently soft during the several days it takes their new shells to harden.

Put a molting sand crab on a hook, and fish will start biting within minutes. Put out an unmolted, hard-shelled crab, and a bite may not come for days.

Ed Tarvyd, professor of marine biology at Santa Monica College, explains that shore fish “are genetically coded to eat sand crabs. Over tens of thousands of years, they have evolved digestive enzymes for this particular nutrient.” They will almost always prefer a sand crab to any other bait. Earthworms, for example, are a foreign substance that some fish may find a acceptable substitute, Tarvyd said, but sand crabs are clearly the food of choice.

Pastel agrees. At low tide, he says, he has seen barred surf perch, California corbina and young croakers “swim in with the white water, digging their heads in the sand, looking for crabs,” sometimes in water so shallow that their eyes stick out above the surface.

But finding molting crabs takes patience and persistence.

Cathy Crouch, curator at the Cabrillo Marine Museum in San Pedro, estimates that in its two- to three-year life span, the average sand crab will molt an average of only 20 days--a mere 2% of its life.

What makes the Santa Monica-Venice beach special, veteran crabbers say, is not just its high crab population but its high percentage of molting crabs. When he digs crabs with friends in Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach, Pastel said, his ratio is sometimes as poor as 100 hard-shelled crabs for every molting one. In Santa Monica, he said, about one out of every six sand crabs he digs up is molting.

According to Crouch, the sand crab is native to the Western American coast from Alaska to Baja California, and is also found along the coast of Peru and Chile. Within this range, she said, certain spots--such as Santa Monica--have a combination of tides, currents, waves and sand that add up to ideal conditions for sand crabs to flourish.

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Sand crabs’ lives, adds Crouch, are fraught with peril. Those that manage to avoid human and piscine predators are still in danger of being dug up and eaten by shore birds, such as the sanderling and the Western sandpiper. And sand crabs fleeing to deeper water are hunted by the larger spiny crabs.

Hanania is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.


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