Declining harvest -- crab, shrimp catches down on Gulf Coast

MORGAN CITY, La. -- The harvest of blue crab catch is down significantly along the Louisiana coast and the decline extends to the East Coast with many factors posed as playing a role in the lackluster harvest, some experts said.

Among the possible causes of the sparse harvest is the cool spring the state experienced, Judith Anderson, assistant professor in the School of Renewable Natural Resources at the LSU AgCenter, said.

“The temperature and salinity are major players in how quickly crabs grow,” Anderson said. “Even during the colder months, they just don’t go out and forage nearly as much. So, I think it took longer to start seeing that peak in the spring.”

The colder water slowed the crabs’ growth, Anderson said. As of March, Anderson said there was a huge decline this year in the blue crab harvest over previous years, Anderson said.

Usually, the crab catch goes up significantly during the summer and peaks in July or August, she said. “They were seeing an upswing in catch like they would expect. It wasn’t continually declining which is a good sign. If it continued to decline all summer, we’d be very concerned,” she said.

“They were seeing an increase, but it still wasn’t to normal summer levels,” she said.

Anderson said the Chesapeake Bay around Maryland and Virginia, and the Carolinas are seeing the same kind of underwhelming crab harvests as the Gulf Coast region is seeing. Though Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 oil spill could have some lingering effects on the crab and shrimp harvests, Anderson pointed out that the East Coast was not affected by Hurricane Katrina or the oil spill.

Crabs and shrimp usually move out of the way of fresh or oily water and, as a whole, their populations are not impacted, Anderson said.

The preliminary 2012 blue crab harvest numbers showed 42.9 million pounds harvested, according to information from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and compiled by the Times-Picayune.

Anderson did not have numbers for the crab harvest in Louisiana.

When the freshwater diversions in Louisiana were opened during the 2010 oil spill and flooding in 2011, “all that freshwater definitely harmed the oyster industry,” Anderson said. “We’re seeing a lot of those effects still because the oysters can’t move out of the way.”

Paul Glynn, owner of Glynn’s Seafood & Bait in Bayou Vista, said the crab season has been really slow with about a 50 to 60 percent decrease in catch compared to the average season. “I’ve been fishing all my life (for) crabs,” Glynn said. “Our water was up good enough for crawfish season, but normally if it stays up too long it would make a bad crab season and shrimps too.”

Glynn sells large crabs for $14 per dozen and small to medium crabs for $7 per dozen. He sells shrimp for $5 per pint.

The shrimp harvest in Louisiana is still below 2009 production levels but are not record lows, Anderson said. The state is about 4 million pounds above 2012 and slightly above 2011 numbers, she said.

Glynn buys his shrimp from Dulac, and shrimp prices have tripled this season, he said.

Prices for shrimp are the highest they have been in quite a few years, Anderson said. Crab prices have also been high as a result of the low catch, Anderson said. “I’ve heard that the season has kind of picked up in the Dulac … area of the state,” Anderson said.

According to a report from WLOX TV station in Biloxi, Miss., Mississippi is experiencing the worst blue crab harvest since 1994. In the report, Department of Marine Resources Shrimp and Crab Program Coordinator Traci Floyd said one cause of the slow blue crab season is the large amount of land loss and the abundance of blue crab predators including blue crabs themselves, which are cannibalistic.

Anderson said Louisiana is also seeing an increased number of blue crab predators. The increased redfish population could be another potential cause of the decline in the blue crab population, she said. “A lot of the fishermen have been saying that they’ve been seeing a lot more redfish, and redfish love to prey on smaller blue crabs.”

The coastal land loss is expected to eventually be an issue for the blue crab and shrimp harvests because those animals use the edges of the wetlands for protection from predators, Anderson said. “At some point, we’ll reach kind of a tipping point where there won’t be enough (coastline) anymore, and we most likely will see a decline,” Anderson said.

Researchers do not know exactly how many feet of coastline is needed to sustain the current blue crab, shrimp, oyster, and fish population, Anderson said. Coastal land loss would cause some of the juvenile seafood population to be lost.

Right now, researchers do not know if there is one cause for all the blue crab populations or multiple causes depending on the area, Anderson said.

She has a graduate student who is doing research on blue crab disease, trying to establish the prevalence rates of blue crab disease.

To try to combat the slow crab season, Glynn keeps moving his traps around, thus costing him more to operate his business, he said. “I’ve been running my boats between five and six days a week right now to try to make it,” Glynn said. Glynn said this season he is “fishing harder” and “putting more traps on the water for less catch.”

Glynn catches crabs south of the Intracoastal Waterway in the Atchafalaya River in St. Mary and Terrebonne parishes.

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