New rules shut down Louisiana crab harvest
In early February the menu at Clancy’s Restaurant was, as usual, brimming with crabmeat – in the soup, between the gnocchi, with the paneed veal and standing on its own for the crabmeat salad, a decadent house standard.
But for a fish special, Clancy’s chef Brian Larson served the tripletail with crawfish instead of crab, and those crawfish served as notice that a change is ahead.
“We’re trying to ease people into the idea of ordering something besides crab,” said Larson. “At least for a few weeks.”
Louisiana blue crab is everywhere from the gumbo pot to the seafood boil in New Orleans. But for a 30-day span beginning later this month, the local catch will be off limits.
From Feb. 20 through March 21, the state will enact a first-of-its-kind closure of the blue crab fishery. Along with other new regulations restricting the harvest of immature female crabs, the shutdown is intended to give fledgling crabs a respite and encourage a stronger population when the fishery reopens in early spring.
The closure does not mean crab will be completely banished from local menus or markets. Crab from outside Louisiana will still be available, although prices are expected to be high.
But a statewide shutdown of the Louisiana crab fishery is new, and people from the fishing dock to the dining room are closely watching its impact.
“Crab is part of everyone’s cuisine here in south Louisiana, so we’re all affected by this,” said Archie Casbarian, an owner of Arnaud’s Restaurant, which uses crabmeat lavishly across its French Creole menu. “It’s not so easy to say it’s one less ingredient when it plays such a big role on our menu, and in our cuisine really.”
As the closure has neared, Arnaud’s staff have been talking with suppliers, trying to gauge the options, and advising customers who book the restaurant’s many private dining rooms that crab could be off the menu.
Across the dining spectrum at the Galley Seafood, a neighborhood joint in Old Metairie known for its boiled seafood and soft shell crabs, proprietor Dennis Patania said crabs would be on hiatus during the shutdown.
He thinks it will cost him some business, but he also believes the closure is a necessary step.
“Really it should have been done a long time ago,” Patania said. “It’s going to affect us, but in the long run it’ll be better for everybody. People always want crabs here but we just have to take a break from them.”
Louisiana’s vast estuary coastline has historically netted a tremendous crab harvest. The state is by far the nation’s top blue crab supplier, producing an annual average of 43 million pounds. But lately state officials have seen warning signs of over fishing.
Louisiana’s blue crab fishery is certified sustainable, which means local fishermen can assure buyers their product comes from a healthy, well-maintained resource. As part of that certification process, there are benchmarks for tracking the condition of the fishery.
“When we cross those benchmarks, we have to take action so we don’t run past the point of no return,” said Jeff Marx, crustacean biologist with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Last summer, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission approved a crab fishing closure for 30 days each year in 2017, 2018 and 2019, beginning the third Monday of February.
The closure requires fishermen to pull their crab traps. Any traps left behind will be considered abandoned and can be removed by state wildlife agents. Derelict traps, as the abandoned gear is known, take a toll on wildlife as they continue to trap animals even though no one is tending them.
“This is about alleviating the pressure of fishing for a period and having a time to get some of the traps out of the water,” said Marx. “The simple act of getting the derelict traps up may be the biggest impact.”
Some fishermen support the closure, including Peter Gerica, who works on the waters around New Orleans and serves as chairman of the state’s blue crab task force. He’s seen the number of crabbers and the density of traps soar.
“The pie’s only so big, and you can only get so many slices of that pie,” Gerica said. “So the only way to keep it going is to give (the crabs) a break and let them get their numbers back up again.”
He foresees a stronger harvest this spring once the closure is lifted, based on his experience after hurricanes Katrina and Rita forced more limited, regional fishing closures.
“When we open the season up, you won’t have any scarcity of crabs,” he said. “I think we’ll go back to seeing larger soft shells like we had before, and a higher quantity of crabs.”
During the closure, however, the crab industry will be in some uncharted waters. At Pontchartrain Blue Crab, a larger processor and distributor in Slidell, the new regulation will mean a temporary shutdown of operations.
“We’ll be closing down the plant and using that time to do some renovations,” said owner Gary Bauer, whose company typically moves four to five million pounds of crab annually.
Bauer is among those taking a “wait-and-see” attitude to the efficacy of the closure, though he’s relieved at least for its timing.
“If I could choose this month over any other for this to happen, I’d take this one,” he said.
There is no designated crab season in Louisiana, though winter is the downtime for the catch. Last year at this time, for instance, some New Orleans restaurants pulled crab from their menu altogether for a few weeks as prices spiked and quality declined. Marx said the state planned the closure to coincide with this typical seasonal lull.
Some in the seafood industry see a renewed focus on seasonality as a possible side benefit to the shutdown.
“People will be off crab for a while, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” said Harlon Pearce, owner of the Kenner-based distributor Harlon’s LA Fish. “Sometimes seasonality isn’t as big a part of life as it should be in Louisiana.”
With oysters hitting their prime and crawfish making their annual return, Pearce is advocating for other Louisiana seafood to get the spotlight while local crab becomes scarce.
“I think the guy sitting at the restaurant will appreciate it if the waiter explains that we’re not serving crabmeat because it’s not the best and it’s not good for the fishery right now, but we are serving something else because that’s what’s best right now,” said Pearce.
At Clancy’s, Larson is counting on precisely that attitude. Crawfish tails have been getting extra special attention in his kitchen, where for a recent special they were sautéed in butter and wine with parsley and green onions. Later this month, as the local supply crab runs out, Larson plans to pull the crabmeat salad, a longtime menu mainstay. He’ll replace it, for the duration of the closure, with a crawfish salad.
“It’s going to be an interesting time, but all I can say is thank God crawfish is in season,” said Larson.