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What's behind the dramatic drop in soft-shell crab production in Louisiana?

Live blue crabs harvested in the Mississippi Sound by fishermen with Bob’s Crabs in the Lakeshore community in Hancock County, are brought back to the dock.
Live blue crabs harvested in the Mississippi Sound by fishermen with Bob’s Crabs in the Lakeshore community in Hancock County, are brought back to the dock. Sun Herald File

Many nights, Trudy Luke is up all night monitoring her blue crabs.

Producing soft-shell blue crabs is all about the timing — being ready to take a crab from the tank in the small window after it has shed its hard shell — which often means tending to the crabs in the middle of the night.

“Soft-shell crabbing is like taking care of a newborn baby. It’s a full-time job,” said Luke, owner of Luke’s Seafood in Dulac. “You lose a lot of sleep.”

But for Luke, it’s worth it. She loves caring for the crabs, and it’s become her way of life since she opened up her seafood business in 1999. However, she is an outlier in the Louisiana soft-shell crab industry, which has been rapidly losing producers in the last few decades.

In 1945, about 2.4 million pounds of soft-shell crab was produced in the Bayou State, which is more than 300 times what was produced in 2015, according to the Louisiana Sea Grant, an LSU-based program that works to promote stewardship of the state’s coastal resources, according to a report from The Advocate website.

Just since the 1990s, the number of soft-shell crab producers has seen a sixfold drop, from about 300 producers in 1991 to fewer than 50 in the state today, according to Julie Lively, with the Louisiana Sea Grant.

Luke has felt the change.

Soft-shell crabbing is like taking care of a newborn baby. It’s a full-time job.

Trudy Luke, Luke’s Seafood

This past year, she said, she couldn’t keep up with the demand for her soft-shell crabs, even though, on average, soft-shell crabs sell for seven times more than their hard-shell counterparts, according to the Louisiana Sea Grant.

“I’m totally wiped out. I couldn’t produce enough,” Luke said.

Fishery and marine specialists haven’t been able to pinpoint why Louisiana’s soft-shell crab industry has continued to suffer — and until recently, few realized just how much it had declined, said Lively, who also is a fisheries specialist for the LSU AgCenter.

Lively teamed up with researchers from the University of Maryland and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science last December to begin what she described as a multi-year project to determine what’s affecting the soft-shell blue crab industry and find ways to preserve it and make it more profitable and successful. The research collaboration across the three states is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries.

“It’s kind of a hidden industry we don’t know a lot about,” Lively said. “When we started this summer to try to find shedders to work with, we were able to calculate there’s only between 19 and 40 (producers) in the state.”

For the rest of this story, visit The Advocate’s website.

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