From chilli crab, to salted egg crab, to soft shell crab, Singaporeans love to chow down on all sorts of dishes made from the tasty crustacean.
Despite our ravenous appetite for it, there are only a handful of local farms that rear their own crabs here — unsurprising, with our limited land space.
Instead, most of the crabs we consume are caught and imported from our neighbours.
Here’s the problem: Crabs are quickly being over-harvested for consumption, which leads to their numbers in the wild depleting.
That’s where Sam Chua and his co-founders at Crab Lovers Farm want to come in, running one of Singapore’s few sustainable crab farms at Neo Tiew Road.
Good Care Makes Good Crabs
Although he’s taking a chance in the field, 53-year-old Sam lays down a pragmatic truth about crab farming in Singapore:
There are almost no crab farms here because Singapore is generally unsuitable for farming, due to high costs for land, labour and operations.Sam Chua, Co-founder, Crab Lovers Farm
For that reason, he explains, most crab suppliers in Singapore only focus on trading rather than rearing.
Traders import wild caught crabs from overseas and redistribute them to restaurants, hotels and supermarkets.
While it’s an efficient system, the quality of crabs ends up at the mercy of factors such as polluted rivers and poor transport conditions.
By the time the crabs have crossed seas to get here, they often lose a lot of mass and aren’t as fresh and healthy as they should be.
In fact, it’s not uncommon for some crabs to die along the journey, leaving the live ones exposed to harmful toxins and bacteria released from the dead crabs too.
Concerned about long-term sustainability, Sam and his partners decided to take a slower approach at their farm.
They start out by bringing in younger or “lower quality” crabs and raise them till they grow big and healthy.
Being territorial creatures, each crab is housed in its own individual unit, where it receives a constant flow of water and feeds on mussels and trash fish (fish that is deemed not good enough to sell).
By doing so, they reduce mortality rates and produce higher grade crabs that are nice and meaty when they reach restaurants.
Their Own (Soft) Spot In The Market
But what really drew Sam to embark on this venture was the concept of creating Singapore’s first and only soft shell crab farm.
On Crab Lovers Farm’s website, they call soft shell crabs “seafood in its most perfect state”, as it retains the flavour we love without the hassle of prying open shells to indulge.
The idea was the brainchild of Gilbert Pang, one of the four co-founders, who has over 10 years of experience in aquaculture and researching the life cycle of crabs.
In 2017, Gilbert roped in Norman Lim, owner of Sheng Da Fishing Farm, Alan Ong, owner of an electrical engineering firm, and Sam.
Sam himself previously co-founded a company that provides factory automation solutions, which he has been running for over 20 years.
“When Gilbert invited us to join the project, we realised there was no good quality soft shell crab supply in Singapore and that inspired us to move into [this space],” he shares.
Alan and Sam also joined the team as investors, though they’ve declined to share how much they injected to start the farm for now.
Being Soft Doesn’t Mean No Substance
Interestingly, soft shell crabs are not a particular species, but can be any type of crab that has just gone through moulting, when their bodies are most delicate.
To speed up production, typical practice in the industry is to chop off some of the crab’s legs or claws to artificially induce moulting.
With this method, it only takes a few days to harvest soft shell crabs.
However, Sam and his partners don’t buy into it.
“This kind of farming is not only inhumane, but also results in a very low quality soft shell crab with much less meat,” he feels.
To most consumers (ourselves included), it seems like the norm when you bite into a soft shell crab and find barely any meat under its crispy exterior.
In all honesty, I never realised meaty soft shell crabs were even a possibility.
Like most other suppliers, Crab Lovers Farm uses mud crabs. But instead, they let their crabs grow and moult naturally — which only happens about once a month.
Although the yield is much slower, Crab Lovers Farm says their soft shell crabs can sometimes weigh more than 800 grams.
Clawing Through Their Obstacles
Talking to Sam, it’s easy to tell that he’s full of pride for his crabs. But rearing them to meet high standards wasn’t so smooth sailing at the start.
In their early days, the co-founders met some pitfalls when they mistakenly placed their trust in the wrong partners who claimed to be experts in rearing crabs.
We invested into their methods, but they failed. As a result we lost about 80% of our crab stock within two to three months.Sam Chua, Co-founder, Crab Lovers Farm
Left to their own devices, developing a better system didn’t come easily. It took over a year of repeated trial and error before they succeeded.
On top of that, Sam brought on his expertise in factory automation to help the farm work smarter.
Using a data management system, they keep track of every crab’s activity, monitor their water conditions, and stay on top of feeding and cleaning schedules.
“It’s like running hotel management for the crabs,” Sam says. “We know when they ‘check in’ and ‘check out’, and predict when it will be time to harvest.”
Netting The Few With An Eye For Quality
With the gears in motion, Crab Lovers Farm now makes a steady output.
However, Sam shares that it’s also an uphill battle to find clients who are willing to shell out a little more money for better quality seafood.
After multiple rounds of rejection, they found a sweet spot in narrowing their focus to boutique hotels and restaurants.
Smaller establishments, where chefs themselves personally make the purchasing decisions, are more likely to value good quality beyond its price, Sam says.
Currently, Crab Lovers Farm counts Five Bar, Kausmo, Singapore Expo, and The Warehouse Hotel as some of its regular patrons for soft shell crabs.
Through these experiences, they adjusted their production levels to harvest about 20kg of soft shell crabs each day, from a constant stock of 600 crabs on their grounds.
For periods of high demand, they still maintain a larger standby capacity so they can push production to 100kg of crabs a day when necessary.
Besides soft shell crabs, which take up 1 acre of their farm land, Crab Lovers Farm also produces other seafood in the remaining 9 acres, such as giant river prawns.
Sam says the farm is expecting to grow more than 20% year-on-year.
“Ultimately, our goal is to set up a crab hatchery in the future to tackle the issue of over-catching in the wild,” he tells us.
Once again, land space in Singapore would pose a significant challenge to this ambition, and they may consider looking abroad to open their hatchery when the time is right.
Featured Image Credit: Crab Lovers Farm