MONTEGUT — Wayde Bonvillain held up a dazed blue crab with red-tipped pincers that waved and then clicked shut then tossed it into a sorting box and shook his head.
“They are dying after two hours in the outside waters like Whiskey Pass and Lake Barre,” said Bonvillain, a 56-year-old crab wholesaler specializing in soft-shells.
Like others in the business, Bonvillain says crabs aren’t living as long as they used to as they are moved from underwater cages to docks and then processors, wholesalers or retailers.
“Maryland and other states don’t want the crabs anymore because they are not holding up,” he said.
For Bonvillain, the crabs must last long enough to spend time in the long tubs of circulating water where they shed their exoskeletons. The ones preparing to shed their shells tend to last for now. As softshells, the crabs, with their soft, leathery skin, are prized by chefs for braising, roasting, sauteeing, grilling or frying. But the ones sold live for boiling, Bonvillain said, aren’t lasting long enough to make it to market in many cases.
Martin Bourgeois of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is among scientists who have received complaints from crabbers.
“We have heard some things, but we don’t know anything at this point,” Bourgeois said.
What concerns fishermen and wholesalers is that increased crab deaths have occurred in the winter months, a time when the temperatures are more friendly toward the critters. Deaths in the summer are expected, they say, but not so much in January or February.
Wholesalers said that when they ship live crabs to other states, the ones that don’t make it are counted and result in charge-backs. One wholesaler said he has had to charge back more than 10 percent of his shipments over the past few months.
Suspicion centers on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as a cause of the trouble, but there are no clear links. Many things can cause problems for the clawed crustaceans, scientists note, ranging from parasites to damage from other crabs.
Federal and state authorities have tested and retested crabs from Louisiana, and nothing has indicated the crabs are unsafe to eat. Federal and state authorities have tested crabs almost since the beginning of the spill and found no problems with hydrocarbons.
But the fishermen say they know their crabs and know the waters they haul them out of and that something is amiss.
The spill, they say, has changed the balance of things in Louisiana’s estuaries. More finfish are being found within waters well into the coast, they have suggested, pointing to what they say is an unusually high number of crabs that skitter out of their traps with missing legs.
“The legs hang out of the traps sometimes and the fish bite them off,” said Bonvillain, explaining that with more big fish in areas where they weren’t before, such problems have increased.
That causes problems with his sales of live crabs since the missing appendages result in lower prices.
“It still costs me the same to buy them,” he said.
Golden Meadow crab dealer Joe Lodrigue is also aware of the problem.
“They’re not making the trip like they used to,” he said.
A fisherman who sells to Lodrigue agreed and said his fishing efforts have resulted in a lower yield of crabs.
“I picked up 700 cages today and I got about 300 pounds of crab,” said the fisherman, Roy Borne Jr. of Golden Meadow.
The big concern among fishermen is whether the life cycle of Louisiana’s crabs was interrupted by the spill. Oil outside of areas that were boomed off — Borne said he saw this himself during cleanup of the oil spill — kept female crabs from returning to the gentler inshore waters where they lay eggs.
The effects, they say, might not show up in a way that can be measured for two years or more.
“They make their babies by the marsh,” Bonvillain said. “We haven’t seen babies in the traps hanging on the sides like we used to.”
Bonvillain said crabbers he knows will be harvesting in the waters of Bayou Chauvin and Lake Boudreaux over the next few weeks, as well as in surrounding bayous. How well they do, he said, will help him know how well the rest of the season will be.
“After this next run of crabs, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Bonvillain said. “I’m used to getting boiling crabs all the time, but we haven’t had many of those for almost a year. We might not last after this month; right now we’re really sweating it out.”
Senior Staff Writer John DeSantis can be reached at 850-1150 or firstname.lastname@example.org