This past summer, in a popular seafood restaurant in Abbeville, LA, the construction sound of wooden mallets pounding the claws of boiled crabs is interrupted at one table as the conversation turns to the other hit taken by the blue-trimmed crustaceans.
In a state with the largest blue crab fishery in the country, it was surprising news to many fishermen who heard, in July 2016, that commercial crab fishing would be closed for 30 days a year over the next three years, beginning this February, because of an overharvest of the fishery.
Fact is, Louisiana’s crab industry has seen a gradual decline in the crab population, arguably since 2000, with the most concerning levels reached last year. According to the 2016 Blue Crab Stock Assessment, by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF), the blue crab population was estimated at 14.3 million pounds in 2015. The benchmark for “overfished” conditions is when the population falls below 17.1 million pounds.
LDWF Program Manager for Marine Fisheries Jeff Marx says that with this kind of decrease in blue crab numbers, the Department had to take action. The 30-day closure of trap fishery will begin the third Monday in February, historically a down time in the season, so the interruption in fishing is minimal. Marine experts say that time will give mature female crabs time to spawn and immature female crabs time to grow.
“You’ll see a better product,” says Marx. “In late February, early March, there’s what is called a ‘skinny’ crab and with the closure, those crabs will have a chance to grow and get a better quality.”
Some fishermen and crab processors aren’t so sure; though they will tell you that 2016 has been a slow crab season. Frank Randol, crab processor and owner of Randol’s Restaurant in Lafayette, LA, said his business was down in the fall of 2016, noting the percentage of yielded jumbo lump crab meat was at 11 percent, when it’s usually at 15 percent.
Randol, who’s been a crab processor since 1971, says he thinks there’s more to sustainability than a temporary closure. “We need to manage the resource; the closures aren’t as important as the management. There’s an imbalance of fisheries, where, for instance, red drum and other predator fish have been feasting on crabs for years. Harvesting the fish that are eating the crabs is an important step in saving the crab population.”
On the flip side, Trudy Luke, co-owner of Luke’s Seafood in Dulac, LA and member of a long-running crab fishing family, agrees that a proactive approach to the problem must be taken. Luke is a member of the Blue Crab Task Force along with other representatives from the crab industry who worry that if action is not taken now to sustain the population, then harsher restrictions might be imposed that would be even worse for fishermen, possibly jeopardizing the state’s year-round crab season.
No doubt, a low crab population has had an additional economic impact on fishermen, who are having to fish with more traps, putting out an average of 500-600 as compared to 300 traps a few years ago.
Because the LDWF has kept a watchful eye on the state’s blue crab population for years, the Department earned a seal of sustainability from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) in 2012, the first and only crab fishery in the world to earn this designation. While the “seal of sustainability” opened doors to large retailers like Whole Foods and other national chains, it also required some environmental stipulations.
The MSC mandates that benchmarks be met for five years in monitoring the crab fishery population, particularly how to maintain or increase crab production without hurting the ecosystem and what to do if an overharvest is reached.
Bottom line: There no easy solutions to addressing the issue of overfishing, especially since one or more of the root causes is outside human control.
Associate Professor of Fisheries for LSU Ag Center and Fisheries Specialist for Sea Grant Julie Lively says the decrease in the crab fishery is not isolated to Louisiana; the crab population is down from the east coast to Texas, a phenomena governed much by nature. “Crab biology is driven by temperature and salinity; if salinity is low, predator fish don’t come in as close. Also, more wet years will help populate crabs,” she says.
Adding to that, Marx says that lack of severe freezes keeps predator fish thriving. Tropical storms blow in crabs from offshore that are normally unavailable. “We can’t control nature, but we can control fisheries.”
“Regardless of the underlying cause, we have reached the harvest limit and the state is managing the fishery so it can remain sustainable in the future for the fishermen of Louisiana,” says Lively.
According to Marx, there has never been a statewide seasonal crab closure, only small regional and area closures to pick up abandoned crab traps. Each year since 2004, LDWF has removed and disposed of traps snagged by boat motors or disengaged in storms- over 25,000 to date. The removal of these crab traps is especially important to crab harvesting efforts.
Crab trap pickups will continue for 16 days on the eastern and western portion of the state during the 30-day crab closure.
Experts remain optimistic that this management solution will see results. Unlike other areas of the country, it takes a blue point crab just over one year to reach maturity- as compared to two years in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.
“Hopefully, it’ll build the population to the point where fishermen won’t have to put out as many traps,” says Marx.
Lively says it might not take long for populations to rebound. Amazingly, a female crab can lay as many as 750,000 to eight million eggs in her lifetime! Hearing that, one veteran crabber attending an educational workshop last fall in Bourg, LA said with a smirk, “Well then, close the bedroom door and let the crabs do their thing.”