Where the gravel road dead ends into Bayou Cypremort, Daniel Edgar wanders up and down the crab tanks in a metal building to see if any crabs have busted out of their shells.
Before soft-shell crabs end up on platters or in po’boys in restaurants, the crabs shed their shells here — or at a few dozen places like it along the coast.
Crab shedders buy “busters,” as crabbers call blue crabs about to lose their shells, then they keep them in shallow tanks until they molt and lose their hard shells.
“This is a hard business,” Edgar said, picking up a slippery crab from its shallow tank.
Recently, this traditional Louisiana business has been in decline. The industry peaked in 1945 when the state produced 2.37 million pounds of soft-shells, according to statistics from Louisiana Sea Grant. In 2017 the state produced only 10,865 pounds, according to the 2017 LSU AgCenter Ag Summary.
Researchers are studying the causes of the soft-shell crab decline. Overfishing and disease are possible reasons, said Julie Anderson Lively, a Louisiana Sea Grant and LSU AgCenter fisheries specialist who monitors the industry. Or, she wonders, is the job too labor-intensive or expensive for crab shedders?
In the early 1990s, there were an estimated 300 crab shedders operating in the state, Lively said. Today Sea Grant agents know of just 40 or 50.
“I think we are in danger,” Lively said. “In the next generation or two, it could disappear.”
Lively and Carol Franze, an AgCenter and Sea Grant specialist, are working to revive the soft-shell crab industry. Since 2013, AgCenter and Sea Grant specialists and agents have led workshops focused on crab shedding to stoke interest in the industry and educate the fishers who sell crabs.
Crab shedding is a full-time job. The crabs can shed their shells at any time, and within a couple of hours they must be removed from their tanks and refrigerated before their new exoskeletons form.
For many, the soft-shell crab business is a part-time endeavor for crabbers or fishers. Some do it for extra income in retirement, while some crabbers and fishers will set up a crab shedding operation at their homes and enlist family members to help check to see if the crabs have shed their shells.
“We’re seeing a lot less of the family tradition,” Lively said. “A lot of soft-shell facilities, it was the grandparents who taught the parents. It has passed from parent to child.”
While tough, the business has potential to pay well. A soft-shell crab is worth seven times the value of a regular blue crab, Lively said. And demand is much higher than supply. Louisiana crab shedders regularly get calls from restaurants in other states searching for soft-shells.
“They can barely keep up with their orders locally, and they’re not going to mess with trying to ship things out of state when they are trying to fill things in state,” Lively said.
Daniel Edgar owns St. Mary Seafood near Franklin, where he raises crawfish and buys seafood off boats at his dock. For one month a year he hunts alligators and appears in the reality television show “Swamp People” with his family.
He runs his crab shedding operation in a Quonset hut a few hundred feet from his dock. A large operation, it has room for thousands of crabs at any time. He created a system that draws fresh “city” water into a series of cinder-block tanks at the rear of the hut where bacteria and a little salt are added to create an environment suitable for crabs. That water is then piped out to the fiberglass trays where the crabs live until they molt.
Once they shed their shells, Edgar, or one of his employees, pulls the crabs and places them in coolers set to 45 to 48 degrees Fahrenheit, where they stay until they’re sold. These tanks aren’t as full as they once were.
“Mother Nature, she just doesn’t give me the busters,” Edgar said.
Edgar fondly remembers the season in 2000, when he says he would buy more buster crabs in one day than he gets in two weeks now. One day in particular stands out, Edgar says, when he bought 144 wooden crates — at 100 pounds each — of buster crabs.
“At this rate it would take me a year or two years to buy that many busters now,” he said.
Blue crab populations have dropped since then, and Lively and other Sea Grant researchers are trying to figure out why.
“Is it just overfishing? We don’t really think it is the result of overfishing or a result of fishing pressure,” Lively said. “Fishing pressure has not changed a whole lot.”
Limits on crabbing have been implemented by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. In 2017, the department closed the blue crab fishery for 30 days, and the state now restricts the harvesting of immature female crabs that haven’t had a chance to mate and reproduce.
“Even though fishing may not be the direct cause, it is one of the causes of mortality the state has direct control over,” Lively said.
For Edgar, soft-shells are just one line of business. He keeps his operation running into the fall even as the season winds down and fewer crabs come in. Keeping his crabbers happy is important, he says. He doesn’t want to quit crab shedding.
“We’ve been here a long time,” Edgar said, “and I don’t want to go out of business.”
With help from the AgCenter and Sea Grant, he hopes the industry can grow again.
Kyle Peveto is assistant communications specialist with Communications and assistant editor of Louisiana Agriculture.
(This article appears in the fall 2018 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
Read: "Reviving the Soft-Shell Blue Crab Industry" by Carol Franze and Julie Anderson Lively
Daniel Edgar holds a box of soft-shell crabs that are kept in a refrigerator at 45 to 48 degrees. After the crabs shed their shells, they must be refrigerated until they are sold so they will not form a new hard exoskeleton. Photo by Kyle Peveto
Victor “Red” Jones checks the blue crabs at St. Mary Seafood, removing any crabs that have recently shed their shells. Photo by Kyle Peveto
Daniel Edgar grabs a soft-shell crab that has recently shed its shell at his soft-shell crab facility near Franklin. Edgar has been crab shedding for three decades. Photo by Kyle Peveto