Crawfish season cannot last forever, and shrimp season is not yet in full swing. Luckily, we have another tasty crustacean available- blue crabs. While blue crabs are caught year round in Louisiana, the peak season is in the warm summer months of June, July, and August. Soft shell blue crabs follow this trend as crabs molt more (hence more soft shells) in warmer months. In Louisiana, blue crabs reach adult size in about 12-18 months. However, many factors affect their growth. Salinity and temperature are very important. Baby crabs that just hatched need salty water, which is why the females migrate out to the saltier areas of the state to hatch their eggs. A female can have 8 to 9 million eggs at a time, and they can produce eggs several times after mating once. However once they are juveniles, blue crabs can survive in completely fresh water— although they still prefer some salt. To grow, the crabs must molt. A male will molt about 25 times in his life while females molt about 20 times. Food availability and the amount of predators will also affect growth and blue crab populations.
Blue crab populations have been a popular topic across Louisiana, the Gulf of Mexico, and the East Coast over the last few years. Overall, all regions have seen a decline in landings. In years without a major interruption to fishing (i.e. hurricanes), Louisiana usually lands close to 50 million pounds of blue crab. Landings were below 40 million pounds in 2013. The preliminary numbers for 2014 put landings near 42 million pounds for 2014. Louisiana is usually the number one producer of blue crab in the country, and a lot of our blue crab is shipped to the Chesapeake Bay region. While our landings are down some, states like Virginia are down over 50% in landings since 2010.
Like most things, supply and demand plays a major role in the price of crab. For years, the price was relatively stable (dockside) for crabs. However, with many states in decline and demand still up, the dockside price has been climbing. In 2013, Louisiana landings had a record high dockside value of $51 million. Preliminary numbers from 2014 look like we will set a new state record high with a dockside value of $62 million for blue crabs. That does not include peeler crabs or soft shells.
Many factors could be causing this decline from rainfall patterns, to predator and prey abundance, to fishing pressure. Many of these factors cannot be directly managed easily. However, because of the supply concern, all states with blue crab have been looking at commercial fishing management options to make sure we keep populations up. In Louisiana, a new blue crab fishery management plan is out that summarizes all the historic landings and regulations. Recent regulations to make sure our blue crab fishermen stay economically viable have been the implementation of larger escape rings being phased in by 2017 (3 rings at 2 3/8th inches) and the training program for new fishermen (http://www.wlf.louisiana.gov/crabtraining). The state is also looking at ways to keep track of the number of traps in the water as currently there is no way to measure this in Louisiana. Knowing the number of traps would make it easier to manage the fishery and know if fishing effort is increasing or decreasing. Currently, the state can only measure the number of trips fishermen make but not traps. Keeping our populations healthy is important so that as crawfish season ends, we can switch our boiling pots to crabs.