Louisiana blue crabs could wind up on menus in eco-friendly restaurants, at major retailers and in European markets.
The state’s is the first blue crab fishery in the world to earn a seal of sustainability from the Marine Stewardship Council.
Seafood experts in Louisiana say the designation will be an asset to the brand, opening doors to markets where sustainability has become increasingly important in seafood selection.
“We can market to chefs in the U.S. and open up the doors to overseas markets,” said Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board.
But locals in the blue crab industry say the industry has bigger problems it should be focusing on.
“That’s all fine and dandy, but we need the crabs first,” said Eric Blanchard, owner of Cajun Crab seafood processing in Chauvin.
Since the oil spill, Blanchard said production has been about a third of what he normally sees. Fishermen are still going out to catch crab, but are coming back empty-handed. He believes the spill is to blame. Prices for blue crab are actually the highest they’ve been in a long time, Blanchard said. But the supply isn’t there.
“They’re trying to help us by spreading out the market. But we’ve got to get the product first,” Blanchard said.
Crabs are a big part of the Terrebonne and Lafourche fishing industry. While crabs are landed from all state coastal waters, more than half of Louisiana blue crabs are harvested from the Lake Pontchartrain and Terrebonne basins.Blue crabs are harvested year round by about 3,000 fishermen in Louisiana. Louisiana blue crab landings averaged over 40 million pounds in recent years, and made up 30 percent of the nation’s blue crab landings in 2009. That translates to about $300 million annually for the Louisiana’s state economy.
Sustainability means that the blue crab fishery is managed responsibly and that production can be maintained or increased without hurting the ecosystem.
An independent, third-party certification body, Scientific Certification Systems of California, was hired to assess the Louisiana blue crab fishery against the Marine Stewardship Council’s standards. The Louisiana Crab Task Force asked for the certification and spent $70,800 on the assessment.
The assessment involved site visits to Louisiana, outreach to stakeholders in the blue crab fishery and a scientific peer review.
“There’s certain criteria we had to meet. One small example is looking at the ecosystem impact of a crab trap? A crab trap has a small impact on the bottom of the Gulf,” said Rene LeBreton, program manager with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Also evaluated was the strength of Wildlife and Fisheries’ enforcement of fishing regulations.
“This certification fully validates what Louisiana’s blue crab industry and department have known all along — that our blue crab fishery is managed responsibly at sustainable levels,” said Wildlife and Fisheries Assistant Secretary Randy Pausina.
Scientific Certification Systems identified six improvements the blue crab fishery must perform over the next five years, including addressing what the state will do if harvest limits are reached and providing more details about bycatch, unwanted species that are often trapped with crabs.
Louisiana has said it will create a Blue Crab Fishery Management plan to handle some of those issues and implement a program to collect information about bycatch.Interest has increased in sustainable seafood as overfishing has become a huge issue in fisheries around the world.
It has also become increasingly important to major retailers like Wal-Mart, Costco, Kroger and Target. And markets in Europe and the United King require sustainable certifications.
Studies suggest that some retailers may be willing to pay a higher price for seafood that is certified and labeled eco-friendly or sustainable.
“There’s an increasing pressure to use sustainable products,” LeBreton said. “It elevates our brand a little bit and gives us some markets we didn’t have before.”
But he added that “the ball is in the industry’s court” to find ways to use the sustainable label in marketing and labeling.
Dennis Landry, owner of Crab LLC in Larose and a member of the state’s Crab Task Force, said catch has been down 60 percent since the 2010 Gulf oil spill.
“For our industry, I think our first interest is to figure out or get some kind of answer as to why we are down so low on crabs,” Landry said. “Is it seasonal? Is it from the Corexit (a chemical dispersant sprayed during the oil spill)?”
Tissue samples taken of the crabs have been not shown elevated levels of oil spill toxins. But the crabs just aren’t out there. And a mild winter usually makes for plentiful crabs, Blanchard said.
“I have more of a concern about our future and our industry as a whole,” Landry said. “I can move on. But for the crab fishermen and some of my employees, it’s going to be harder. I want to know: ‘Where’s my natural resource to support my industry?’ ”The sustainability brand could help the Louisiana blue crab industry, Blanchard said, but with no crabs to sell, “we have yet to see what it means,” Blanchard said. Due to poor catch, the side of his factory that picks crab meat has been shut down since December, and his live-crab business is slow.
“If the crabs come back, and we can get the numbers we’re supposed to have, it will help,” he said. “Get me some crabs, and I’ll put a ‘sustainable’ sticker on it.”
Staff Writer Nikki Buskey can be reached at 857-2205.