Crabbers move on to other jobs because of low yields in Lake

Published: Jun. 7, 2013 at 8:58 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 14, 2013 at 9:15 PM CDT
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Local seafood stores, tired of telling their customers they're out of crabs, turn to other parts of the state for help. They say the Lake Pontchartrain crab fishery has been virtually dead for three months now -- and no one knows why.

Some people say it's the oil spill, others say it's the closure of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal.  For whatever reason, the Lake Pontchartrain crab fishery -- normally a crab 'factory' this time of year -- seems to be shut down this year.

From Lake Catherine to Bucktown, this year's severe slowdown of the crabbing industry in the  Pontchartrain estuary is now moving into its fourth month.

"All the years I've been crabbing this is the worst, and it's not getting any better." said veteran crabber Larry Spahn.

This should be prime time for crabs in Bucktown.  They are usually stacked high on trays in Captain Sid's Seafood, come summer. But not this summer.

"This year is the worst year we've ever seen in the business. I've been in this business since the late 60's," said Don Jackson with Captain Sid's.

Merlin Schaefer with Schaefer and Rusich Seafood says, "It could be something to do with the dispersant, when the spill hit. That's when the crabs were sponging, that was the time of the year."

Others say it's the cool spring, or the closure of the MR-GO, a prime feeder for the lake.  That and frequent rains have reduced salinity levels and made the lake much fresher than usual.

Jackson said, "Studies need to be done." But so far, he's seen none.

Crabbers are now having to take on new jobs to pay the bills.

"Right now, I'm doing stump grinding jobs, anything to make money," said Spahn.

Many of the crabbers we've spoken with have already taken BP settlement money.  Larry Spahn has not, meaning he may still recover from what he and other crabbers are calling the worst year they've ever seen.

But some crabs are finally showing up -- not in the lake, but in the marshes of St. Bernard.

Merlin Schaefer brought in dozens of bushels of crabs for his store on Lake Avenue, caught in St. Bernard marshes after shifting 600 crab traps out of Lake Pontchartrain.

"Usually this time of year, we're doing well, this year, out in Lake Pontchartrain, it's bad," said Schaefer.

And after not having any crabs for two months, Deanie's is now getting some, from Lake Borne, but for many, the damage is done.

"We've cut back on employees, and hours for employees," said Jackson. And at this point he doesn't know when he will be re-hiring.