by Gordon Curry/Louisiana Seafood News
With the Mississippi River reaching historic lows this year, the supply of Louisiana blue crabs should be on the upswing. But that’s not the case.
In fact, production is down by 20 to 30 percent by some estimates, and those in the business aren’t sure why.
Trudy Luke, owner of Luke’s Seafood, ships live crabs to wholesalers, retail stores and restaurants. She takes fresh catches from fishermen and grades or sorts every crab by gender and size to determine which of her customers each will go to.
One of her specialties is soft-shell crabs. As she sorts through the crabs, she pulls out the “busters,” those that are molting or are about to molt, and places them in a separate tank. She checks on them every few hours – even through the night – and pulls them out as soon as they shed their outer shell for packaging and freezing.
Worse than Normal Year for Crab
On a good day, Luke might ship 15,000 to 20,000 live crabs. Today, she said she’s lucky to ship 5,000. And that’s during what should be the most productive time of the crabbing season.
Her operation is located in Dulac, Louisiana, not far from the Terrebonne basin, one of the two areas where more than half of Louisiana blue crabs primarily are harvested. The other is the Lake Pontchartrain area.
Luke said Hurricane Isaac put a damper on things this season, but doesn’t account for most of the problem. When the storm came through, fishermen lost a lot of their traps and had to shut down.
St. Mary’s Seafood, located east of Cypremort Point off the Intracostal Canal, also saw its crab production shrink – in this case, by about 20 percent.
“Normally, we take the good years with the bad,” said Daniel Edgar, owner of St. Mary’s. “But in the 27 years I’ve operated this business, I have never, ever had an October where the females weren’t running strong. There’s just no crabs to speak of.”
Blue crabs are known for their sweet flavor, meaty texture and are highly sought after. They are harvested year-round, primarily with baited traps. Harvesters target hard shell blue crabs for both the live and processed meat markets.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries reports that Louisiana blue crab landings have averaged over 40 million pounds in recent years and comprised nearly 30 percent of total U.S. blue crab landings in 2009.
Although it’s been a less-than-average year, some crabbers see a bright spot as interest in Louisiana blue crabs continues to grow.
Earlier this year, the Louisiana blue crab fishery was designated a “sustainable fishery” by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Sustainability ensures the fishery isn’t over-harvested today and that it’s managed responsibly for the future. This designation by the council is the first of its kind for any blue crab fishery in the world
Another potential bright spot is the increasing demand for live crabs in Asian markets.
China in particular, with its rapidly growing middle class, is seeing demand for live crabs exceed its domestic production. According to Global Trade Atlas, U.S. exports of live crabs to China grew by more than 550 percent from 2009 to 2010 to pass $5 million.
Edgar said he was the first Louisiana crabber to ship live crabs to China, some 10 years ago.
Because he was the first, it took about a year to get all the necessary paperwork and permissions established. He stopped that venture after two years because the fuel surcharge became too high.
Today, shipping live crabs overseas efficiently and profitably still poses challenges. But some believe it’s a great time for the right person with the right crab and right message to establish a strong connection in the Asian seafood market.