Summer in Louisiana means blue crab season, when local consumers flock to seafood markets for boiled crabs and chefs add crab-centric specials to their menus. It’s when the crab supply peaks and prices are at their most favorable.
This year, however, looks a lot different.
“I’ve never seen it this bad before, and I’ve been in business for 35 years,” says Louisiana Lagniappe owner Kevin Ortego, who founded the Baton Rouge location of his restaurant in 2003. “It’s never been this hard to get the kind of product we usually do. We’re going to miss the entire crab season.”
Since the spring, not just crab, but oysters, shrimp and some finfish, have seen a sharp decline in numbers due to the influx of freshwater from heavy rains and the opening of the Bonnet Carré Spillway. In late February and again in May, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the spillway to mitigate possible levee breaches from the Mississippi River remaining at flood level.
The spillway’s lengthy opening has sent an unprecedented amount of freshwater into the Pontchartrain basin, which flows east through Lake Pontchartrain, the Rigolets, Lake Borne and into the Mississippi Sound. The altered salinity has created unfavorable conditions, especially for shellfish and bivalves. The situation is being closely monitored by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, but it’s so dire that Gov. John Bel Edwards sent a letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on June 13 asking for a federal fisheries disaster declaration.
Moreover, the problem goes beyond just the Bonnet Carré being open, says Harry Blanchet, biologist administrator of LDWF’s Fisheries Management Division. Freshwater intrusion is also occurring in the Barataria system as well as Vermillion Bay and even the Calcasieu Basin due to high water levels in both the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers.
“It’s a statewide problem,” Blanchet says. “There are decreases in catch in a lot of different places.”
So much freshwater in normally brackish water drives crab into deeper waters, making them hard to find and trap. More dramatically, the freshwater diversion in the Lake Pontchartrain Basin has resulted in the destruction of large numbers of oyster beds, since stationery oysters can’t swim to conditions they like.
“Oysters are going to be one of the longer-term problems, because it takes years to restore beds,” says Blanchet.
According the most recent LDWF data, oyster production is down by 45% on private reefs and 88% on public water-bottoms from this time last spring. Brown shrimp landings are also down by 80% in the Pontchartrain basin and 86% in the Calcasieu basin. And a sampling in April of blue crab in the Pontchartrain basin showed a 60% decrease from long-term averages, while a May sampling in the Vermillion/Atchafalaya basin was 78% below the long-term average.
Ortego is luckier than most. He’s been working with the same supplier in Des Allemands for as long as he’s been in business. He also owns a wholesale seafood business in addition to his restaurant, so he’s been able to source most of what he needs. However, everything is at a much higher price.
“Wholesale, jumbo lump crabmeat is going for $24 to $26 a pound, whereas this time last year it was $19 to $21. It’s the highest it’s ever been,” he says. “We’re not going to cut back on the quality of the product, or the quantity, so that leaves you with having to pass on some of the cost.”
Ortego increased prices last May, but hopes to avoid doing so again. Since he opened in Baton Rouge, the cost of seafood has risen steadily, taking big jumps when hurricanes hit, or when the Deepwater Horizon oil spill necessitated another freshwater diversion. Sixteen years ago, Ortego sold a crab cakes appetizer for $8. It now sells for $16, but should, he says, be priced at $18.
Seafood markets are also currently struggling with supply, says Tony’s Seafood owner Bill Pizzolato.
“The crab catch is way off,” Pizzolato says. “There is very little coming out of the areas we normally buy from, and the sampling we’ve done is not giving us the kind of crabs we like.”
At the height of a typical crab season, Tony’s sells an average of 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of fresh crab a week sourced from the Rigolets, the straights connecting Lake Pontchartrain to Lake Borne, says Pizzolato.
By contrast, Tony’s isn’t seeing anything close to that this year. “We might get in 10 to 15 boxes of samples from different areas,” says Pizzolato, “but the quality is down.”
So called “No. 1” crabs—the largest and heaviest of the season—have been “little and light” this year, says Pizzolato.
“There’s no end in sight,” he says. “We’re continuing to look in other areas, but this is unprecedented.”
The Corps of Engineers began closing the Bonnet Carré spillway on July 22 (closing it entirely was estimated to take a week), but the federal government has not acted on Edwards’ request for financial assistance, which would provide some relief to fishers, processors, and docks and support species rehabilitation, his letter stated.
Blanchet says that while the situation is bad for oysters, crab and shrimp, the freshwater diversion has actually created favorable conditions for freshwater species.
High water levels in the Atchafalaya Basin led to a big increase in crawfish production there this spring.
“It was a very good year for the crawfish industry,” he says. “Even Plaquemines Parish, which is normally not a big crawfish area, saw a sudden increase in crawfish because of so much freshwater.”
Blanchet says it’s also been a good spawning year for freshwater fish like catfish, bass and sac-a-lait, which anglers should see in higher than average numbers a couple of years from now.
Meanwhile, the seafood industry is waiting it out.