The famed Atlantic blue crab has some competition. The Big Reds are muscling into the crab market in Maryland. When two crabs will fill a kettle that normally holds a dozen blues, the potential is obvious.

Known as the Deep Sea Red Crab, it used to be thrown away by lobstermen who found them in their pots. Crab fisherman ignored this flashy novelty crab because they had plenty of blues.

But times have changed. The lobster supply is dwindling, and the long cold winter kept the blue crab supply down and the prices up.

So the Red Crab (Geryon quinquedens) has "caught on," according to Thomas Holt, president and partner in Big Red, Inc., operating out of the commercial wharf in Ocean City. This is second summer his firm is fishing crabs commercially.

Phillips Crab House in Ocean City served the crabs as a substitute for blues earlier in the spring, and had a mixed reaction from the customers. Some liked them better, and some preferred what they are used to. Most agreed that the flavor is more like that of a lobster, particularly the claws.

The Red Crab avergaes about 1 1/2 pounds. It is sweet-flavored and meaty. When properly cooked, the meat shrinks from the shell and with a few shakes will drop from the shell. There is little of the microsurgery required for the small Blue Crabs.

The Blue Crab's ferocity is legend. The groggy Red Crab is easily handled but it still pays to pick it up from the rear of the body.

Red crabs were selling for 75 cents a pound live last week. Picked and frozen Red crabmeat is about a nickel per pound less than the Blue.

Big Red has burgeoning markets in Baltimore and Wilmington, Del. Besides Phillips, other Ocean City restaurants have been buying. The crabs are sold steamed at Griffins Seafood at Fourth and Philadelphia in Ocean City and at the Crab Claw in Rehoboth, Del.

Holt is selling wholesale and retail on Harbor Road, off Rte. 50 in West Ocean City.

COOKING AND CRACKING RED CRABS:

At Phillips Crab House in Ocean City, Md., they are cooking the Red Crabs with their usual Blue Crab spices because that's what the customers are used to.

But Holt said the crabs are better simply boiled in salted water. He boils them 30 minutes and then quickly chills them. He also prefers to kill the crabs first with a quick stab with a knife just above the flap on the underside of the body. This allows body fluids to drain and it keeps the crab from thrashing around in the pot.

After cooking, the crabs are either plunged into ice or placed under cool running water for a couple of minutes. This causes the meat to shrink from the shell and makes removal easier.

Cracking methods differ slightly from that used on Blues. After the flap on the underside is lifted and the carapace pulled away and discarded, the body cavity is cleaned out with a damp paper towel. Also removed are fibrous gray lungs or"devil fingers."

Then the body is cracked in half down the middle and each leg cracked off where it naturally divides in segments. After shaking the leg and tapping it on the side of a bowl, the meat from the body portion falls out.

A pair of kitchen shears is handy for getting at the leg soft shell and tap with a knife handle. Sometimes, but not always, the leg meat will slip right out.

A 1 1/2 pound Red Crab provided nearly a cupful of crabmeat. This can be used as a substitute in any of the traditional sauces may be used.

The late Euell Gibbons, writer and naturalist, was familiar with a similar variety, the Pacific Red Crab: I recommend that this crab be cooked by boiling in plain seawater and the meat be eaten directly as it is picked from the shell, with no seasoning or other ingredients to dilute that wonderful flavor."