Instead of summer camp many children in Louisiana’s might pass their hot summer days dangling a raw piece of chicken over the seawall of Lake Pontchatrain or some other body of water in hopes that a claw might clamp on. Their patience would eventually be rewarded with a sackful of crabs. But the life of a crab fisherman was not that of idly waiting. Irvan Perez, an Isleño from Delacroix Island, sings a traditional décima or song about crabbing
The Isleños were a group of immigrants from the Canary Islands, off the coast of Spain, who settled in St. Bernard Parish. Many of them made their living fishing in the waters of the Gulf. In the song, Perez explains, “The only way the people would fish crabs, at this particular time--later on, it got to be a big industry--but the crabs weren't worth hardly nothing--twenty-five, thirty cents a basket--and the only time they would fish was when we'd have a storm or some type of high water of some kind, that would drive the rats out of the trapping areas. And they would always say that they hate it so much they would say that crab fishing was about seven degrees below a hog. Which didn't speak too well for the industry, but, anyway, later on, of course, it made a big change. The crab went to twenty-one dollars a basket.” Now it seems the industry is returning to its past problem of low crab prices, except now the forces are external.
In 2008 there were 2,200 crab fishermen and 11 crab processing plants, down from 36 in 2000. The dropping numbers are due to imported crab meat. Because crab meat spoils so quickly, often importers will drop the price to $4-5 a pound below that of local crabmeat, rather than lose any to spoilage-- a price Louisiana crab fisherman say they cannot compete with. Those who returned to work after Katrina faced not only external competition, but the expenses of rebuilding their houses, boats, and processing plants, in addition to rising fuel and overhead costs. But like the tenacious Isleño of the song, they cannot imagine abandoning the industry.
Crab fisherman John Brown noted. "This is what I grew up doing, and this is what I'll do. To me, there ain't nothing like being on the water."
Crabs are seen in many delicious dishes throughout New Orleans as well as the South. Maryland is another stronghold of this crustacean, and most of the state enjoys crab feasts throughout the summer. Marylanders typically steam their crabs with generous amounts of cheap beer and Old Bay Seasoning before dumping the hot crabs on picnic tables covered in newspaper. Mallets and picks are used expertly to free the meat, and bushels disappear rapidly. Blue crabs were once so plentiful in the state they were served for free at bars, usually with a heavy dose of spicy and salty seasoning to encourage frequent refreshment. The industry is now facing many of the same problems as the Louisiana crabbers, amplified by the poor quality of the Chesapeake Bay. Crabbers are finding new jobs and places that depend on the crab harvest, such as Smith Island are turning to new avenues for income.