Soft-shell crab fans are fanatically devoted to these newly molted crustaceans with their edible shells. As one devotee described the first bite, “One taste of the crab — its shell like a briny potato chip, the meat sweet and tender — was enough to hook me for life.”
Aficionados have an Auburn University fisheries grad student to thank for bringing more of their beloved soft-shell crabs to the international market.
May Myat Noe Lwin was busy operating her crab farms in Thailand and making a name for herself in South East Asia’s aquaculture industry when she decided to earn a Ph.D. from AU’s School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences.
Remarkably, the 36-year-old Burmese woman known as “Noe Noe” still operates her three soft-shell crab farms in Thailand while living in Auburn, where she is in the classroom daily and regularly in the lab. Her research is focused on producing a new feed for farm-raised mangrove crabs.
“Our industry needs this formulated diet, ” says Lwin, who expects to complete her Ph.D. in December 2016.
The crab-farming industry currently relies on trash fish for feed, which is non-sustainable, perishable and can carry disease, Lwin explains. Once she develops a more suitable feed, she plans to open a mill in her native Myanmar, formerly Burma, where she will produce feed for fish and shrimp as well.
Because soft-shell crabs are farmed on a smaller scale, Lwin says companies are not as interested in developing a feed for this niche market as they are for farm-raised fish and shrimp.
“Auburn University’s fisheries, aquaculture and aquatic programs are really famous in our country, ” says Lwin, whose No. 1 choice for her research was always Auburn University.
“We have an international reputation because we do a lot of work internationally and train many of the international fisheries and aquaculture students who go back and work in their own country, ” explains AU Associate Professor William Daniels, who taught Lwin in his aquaculture production class in Vietnam last December and is one of her advisors.
Lwin’s other advisor at Auburn University is Professor Allen Davis, who specializes in aquatic animal nutrition. “Crabs and soft-shell crabs are very popular seafood items in many countries of the world, ” Davis observes.
“Results of her work will be directly applicable to the local industry and similar operations in Asia and the Americas. We hope by developing diets specifically for this industry that we can improve the production process and build a more sustainable industry.”
Higher retail prices for soft-shell crab have increased its popularity. Mangrove soft-shell crab farming is booming in several Asian countries including Myanmar and Thailand, where farmers like Lwin market crabs at the many seafood processing plants in the Ranong area, where her farms are located. Ranong borders Myanmar, which gives Lwin easy access to her business network in Yangon, Myanmar.
With her diminutive stature, delicate features and cascade of waist-length jet-black hair, Lwin may seem an unlikely candidate for running several businesses in one part of the world while tackling a Ph.D. in another. But looks can be deceiving. She’s got enthusiasm, energy and determination to spare.
“Soft-shell farming is very labor intensive, and the crabs have to be checked every four hours, ” explains Lwin, who has two family members working for her. “You need good workers and responsible people. I’ve got a great team. ”
Crabs are removed from the brackish water shortly after molting during the first four hours and will remain in their soft shell state when held in freshwater. Regular monitoring and retrieval of soft shell crabs is a never-ending task.
Lwin says the people of Thailand do not like to farm, so she hires workers from Myanmar. She previously employed 35 Burmese workers and is down to 15 while in Auburn.
Her work also involves helping her Burmese employees adapt to life in Thailand. Even though the countries are neighboring, their language, customs and laws differ significantly.
Lwin’s Burmese employees who live in Thailand need her help with many personal issues — such as marriage, having children, sending money home to Myanmar and obtaining work permits. She even accompanies them to the doctor.
Before she was a crab farmer and scientist, Lwin was a school teacher in Thailand. She earned a bachelor of science in physics in 2003 in Myanmar and later a master’s degree in education in Thailand.
On school holidays she would visit her family in Myanmar. During a visit in 2006 she chatted with her uncle about his prawn farming work. He told her how difficult it was for prawn farmers to obtain the necessary equipment and supplies.
Lwin’s entrepreneurial side kicked in and she opened a retail supply store in Yangon. In 2008, she resigned from teaching to focus full time on her business.
That’s when Lwin decided she needed to know more about the technical side of farming. So she enrolled in a course on soft-shell farming and was hooked.
In late 2008, she opened her first soft-shell crab farm near Ranong, on the site of a former shrimp pond that had been neglected by its previous owner. Lwin continued to operate her aquaculture supply business in Myanmar to provide extra cash for her farming.
Next she bought her neighbor’s ponds and started another farm. She also provided a training course for farmers who wanted to start their own soft-shell crab farms. She gave presentations on soft-shell mud crab farming at conferences and in 2009 co-authored a manual on soft-shell mud crab farming.
Crabs that are farm raised in Southeast Asia are interchangeably called mangrove and mud crabs. Lwin prefers the term “mangrove” crabs, which she believes sounds nicer and is therefore preferable from a marketing standpoint.
As a young Burmese woman, Lwin says she was unable to borrow money from banks. So it has taken more time to maintain and grow her businesses with limited investment capital.
“I started my businesses when I was 26 and I failed more times than I succeeded, ” Lwin recalls. “I had no business degree so I learned everything on the job. I struggled with marketing, accounting and planning. I had to learn it all by experience.”
In her dual role as businesswoman and scientist, turning a profit and making a viable feed are not her only priorities. So is giving back to her native country.
“I want to help people find the courage to set up their own business, ” she says. “You have to take a risk.”
Though Lwin plans to return to Myanmar, where she will open her mill, she will also continue operating her soft-shell crab farms in Thailand.
So the next softly crunchy crustaceans you soft-shell crab lovers enjoy just might come from a Lwin farm — raised in the unspoiled monsoonal mangrove forests off Thailand’s turquoise Andaman Sea and nurtured with feed developed at Auburn.
Jessica Armstrong and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Armstrong is based in Auburn and Norton in Birmingham.
Text by Jessica Armstrong • Photo by Cary Norton