Holiday seafood gumbo ingredients in short supply

By PRESTON GILL pgill@daily-review.com

Holiday seafood gumbos may be a bit more expensive with less seafood this year because of a shortage of blue crabs and, to some extent, shrimp.
“People coming in to visit always want a gumbo,” Edward Boyne, a Patterson resident said. “By the time I put in shrimp, oysters and crabs, a pot of gumbo costs $100.”
Two of Boyne’s staples, crabs and shrimp, have seen decreased catches and increased retail prices.
Blue crabs have become scarce in Louisiana and Mississippi due to a loss of marsh habitats and other issues, according to fishermen and experts.
Shrimp supply and prices also are affected by a shortage of imported shrimp because a bacterium is reportedly decimating Southeast Asia shrimp populations.
Louisiana crab fishermen say the numbers of crabs they saw this year were extremely low. Worse still, they say the future is not looking much better.
Keith Watts of Ponchatoula has been crabbing more than 30 years and is chairman of Louisiana Crab Task Force. He said the 2013 catch was the worse he has ever seen.
“It was terrible last year and I mean terrible,” Watts said. “I haven’t talked to anybody that caught anything last year.”
“There’s hardly any crabs right now in the state for the retail markets,” Watts said. “I get calls every week from people as far away as Baltimore and Florida looking for Louisiana crabs to purchase. The crabs just aren’t there right now to meet the demand.”
Gary Bauer of Slidell was chairman of the task force from 2010-12. He gave the same assessment and said this is one of the worst landings of crabs in the Pontchartrain Basin and Lake Maurepas he has seen.
Both men say a number of factors could be responsible for the shortage, including the effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Watts said he predicted after the oil spill that the effects on the crab harvest would not be seen until 2013.
“The crabs were still there after the spill. But a crab’s life span is about three years. You do the math. Crabs born that year would be at the end of their life span in 2013,” Watts said. “If the eggs that were laid then were destroyed, there’s been nothing to replace them. This is a telltale sign to me, that something is wrong.”
“I expected 2013 to be bad but I did not expect it to be this bad,” Watts said.
Bauer spread the blame for the current crab shortage past the oil spill and its aftermath.
“I don’t want to be the one out there pointing my finger at the spill,” Bauer said. “I’m not a scientist.” But, he did say that the spill and subsequent storms caused untold damage to the marshes and estuaries vital to the crabs.
Bauer also points to cooler water temperature because of a later than normal 2012 winter keeping water temperatures low. Another culprit could be hypoxia, low oxygen content, in the water, from Hurricane Isaac in 2012, he said. Hypoxic events usually have a short-term effect, he said.
“The most important thing the state of Louisiana can do right now is to begin serious marsh restoration,” Bauer said. “Another super storm will be devastating to the marsh.”
Many fishermen have been hurt financially although there have been reports of some outside of the Pontchartrain Basin that have seen decent production levels, Bauer said.
Louisiana crabbers landed 53.1 million pounds of blue crab, 30 percent of total U.S. production, in the year before the oil spill, according to Jacques Berry, Communication Director for Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne.
The landings decreased 14.7 percent in the year after the spill with 43.8 million pounds of blue crab in 2011, which accounted for 22 percent of total U.S. production, Berry said.
Louisiana crabbers landed 45.3 million pounds of blue crab in 2012, which accounted for 25.1 percent of U.S. production, the last figures Berry had available.
Bauer said decreased crab landing is not isolated to Louisiana.
“It is just as bad in Mississippi,” he said. “They are telling the same story over there.”
The Biloxi Sun Herald reported blue crab harvesting may be seeing its worst year in decades in Mississippi.
The newspaper quotes Rob Heffner, who oversees purchasing for Gulf Coast Restaurant Group as saying, “This has been the worst season of domestic blue crab since we’ve been in business the past eight years … there literally is no availability of blue crab, or it’s 50 to 70 percent increase in normal prices.”
Harriet Perry, a senior research scientist and expert on blue crabs at USM’s Gulf Coast Research Lab, said blue crab has been in a sharp decline since the mid-1990s for a number of reasons, including a drought climate, an abundance of predators and habitat loss, the paper reported.
Traci Floyd, head of Mississippi Department of Marine Resources Shrimp and Crab Bureau, points to Mississippi’s own loss of marsh as a problem.
“One of the major concerns to me is the loss of habitat,” Floyd said.
“We’ve lost — within the Mississippi Sound — almost 25 percent of our wetlands, and that’s primary habitat for blue crabs,” Floyd said.
The newspaper reports Asian shrimp exports have declined by more than a third in some areas because of Early Mortality Syndrome, caused by bacterium which has been affecting Asian shrimp since 2009. The disease can take out an entire pond in a few days, but is not harmful to humans.

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