Bayou La Batre, Ala. – Terry Drawdy is no stranger to trouble. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina’s massive storm surge engulfed this fishing village near the Mississippi-Alabama border, destroying the offices and processing facility of Drawdy’s Crab Co. But Drawdy contends that the spring and summer of 2010 were harder than the summer and fall of 2005.
Before the BP oil spill, Drawdy said nearly 100 percent of the crabs processed at his Alabama plant came from Louisiana waters.
The volume of crabs he sold in eastern Maryland’s lucrative market compelled him to partner with a Baltimore area restaurateur, John Ernst, to unload excess cargo. They bought Handsome Crab & Seafood Carry Out south of Baltimore last November; they added United Crab & Seafood in Gwynn Oak, Md., in April, “just before the frickin’ oil spill,” as Ernst puts it.
“That’s how good my business was,” Drawdy said. “I opened two businesses within six months of each other, blowing and going, and we’ve already had to shut one of them (Handsome) down.”
Drawdy was standing with Robert Sprinkler, Drawdy’s Crab Co.’s manager, outside the processing facility that has been idle since late June. There hasn’t been much activity at all at the plants and docks that line the harbor near Drawdy’s in Bayou La Batre, which calls itself “The Seafood Capital of Alabama.” The men still oversee a small seafood shipping operation, but most of the loads are disappointingly small.
“We went from running two to three trucks a day to Baltimore to running two to three trucks a week,” Sprinkler said. “When you send out as much seafood as we send out, it affects people everywhere. The fingers go way up across the country.”
While Drawdy still buys Louisiana crabs, these days most of his product comes from Mexico and Texas. He’ll continue to send shipments to Maryland even if it means taking a loss.
“You can’t keep customers if you don’t have the product,” he said.
Drawdy’s troubles mirror those of other Gulf seafood suppliers and restaurants, a kind of ricochet economic hit from the market turmoil in the Mid-Atlantic.
The spill occurred just as the Gulf-to-Maryland supply stream is normally at its most symbiotic, in the spring and summer, when a spike in Gulf crab production coincides with the height of demand around the Chesapeake.
It remains to be seen whether the spill will have a lasting effect on the once-favorable market dynamics enjoyed by the Louisiana crab industry.
“Part of what has sustained the (Louisiana) crab industry over the years is the good prices we’ve been able to get for our crabs out of state,” said Vince Guillory, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Best case scenarios rest on Louisiana crab production returning to pre-spill levels in the seasons ahead, which is far from certain. Decreased demand could drive local crabbers and processors out of business, and there is still no telling if crabs in early stages of life will prove as resilient to contamination as the adults currently being harvested for market.
“Larvae are much less tolerant and more susceptible to contaminants than adults,” Guillory said. “Plus, your larvae were primarily in offshore waters, and that’s where we had the highest concentrations of oil.”
Bauer and others have seen a gradual rebound in Louisiana crab supply since Louisiana’s coastal fishing areas reopened in August, but it has not brought a return to business as usual, particularly when it comes to selling Louisiana seafood out of state.
“Everybody in Louisiana that handles crabs does some amount of business with the Baltimore/northeast corridor market,” said Gary Bauer, owner of Pontchartrain Blue Crabs, a large processor and distributor in Slidell.
To illustrate how severely the commercial fishing closures triggered by the oil spill affected his business, Bauer said, “In 2009, we purchased 328,000 pounds of crab in the month of July. In July of this year, we purchased 51,000.
“I’ve had customers up north tell me that if I could put my crab in any other (container) but my own that they could buy it, because their customers didn’t want crab from the Gulf Coast,” Bauer said. “Perception is still a big problem. It took me 10 years to build a reputation for Pontchartrain Blues, and 110 days later people were telling me that they don’t want (my) product.”