Empty net syndrome in the seafood industry hits restaurants hard 

    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 fresh water 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.

    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.

    According to 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.

    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.” 

    Read the full story, which appeared in the latest issue of Business Report. 

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