Seafood gumbo seemed like a good idea to Cathey Landry until she came across a pound of jumbo lump crabmeat for $67.99 at a Lafayette grocery store.
Instead of purchasing the Louisiana crab, she snapped a photo and shared it on social media. The Jan. 14 post took off.
“We were thinking about doing a seafood gumbo, but that was totally out of our budget,” Landry said in a phone interview. “And people are commenting that they’re still buying it. I was really shocked to see that. That’s a $100 gumbo.”
Landry, who lives in the Acadia Parish town of Iota, said she’s seen imported crabmeat at a lower price, but she tries to support the Louisiana industry when she can. Right now isn’t one of those times.
“I might splurge if it’s going into au gratin or something, maybe,” Landry said. “Still, I just don’t think I’d pay that much. It’s like the new caviar.”
It’s impossible to point to a single reason processed crabmeat is going for two to three times the usual price.
Supply chain, pandemic issues
The seafood sector is grappling with many of the same pandemic problems as other industries, including supply chain disruptions and worker shortages. Louisiana’s coastal parishes — and the crabbers who rely on them — continue to recover from hurricanes. Other parts of the country that typically harvest blue crabs have also seen dramatic shortages of the crustacean and are buying up Louisiana’s catch by the truckload. Throw in the usual seasonal price bump that comes during the winter months, and blue crabs are more valuable now than they’ve ever been.
“There’s fewer crabbers going out and catching crab, and there’s fewer crabs to be caught,” said Wendell Verret of Louisiana Direct Seafood. “It’s a downtime in the season. That’s the biology of the crab. That’s just the way it is. But this year, we’re seeing much less production than in the past, even during a low point. We’ve seen the retail price go up about 75%. It always goes up at this time, but it never goes up that much. It’s just the perfect storm.”
Gary Bauer, who owns a crab processing plant in Slidell, said he was selling jumbo lump crab for about $26 per pound to wholesalers a year ago. That price is now about $40 per pound.
Bauer employs about 100 workers at Pontchartrain Blue Crab. About 20 are Louisiana residents and the other 80 are seasonal immigrant workers. Bauer said he hasn’t seen the same workforce challenges as some.
“To get to the meat of the matter,” Bauer said. “It’s competition for crabs. It’s having five or six named storms in 2020 and Ida in 2021. It’s fuel — not just for our trucks getting the crabs but to ship a pallet of crabmeat used to be $280 and now it’s $480. Every cup I put the crabmeat in was once 30 cents, and after two increases in the last 12 months it’s up to about 50 cents a cup. It goes on and on, example after example.”
David Puckett, who owns a Breaux Bridge restaurant, said he temporarily removed crab cakes from his menu last fall when the market price of jumbo lump crab meat jumped to about $50 per pound. That’s more than double his typical cost.
“It’s an unusual market,” Puckett said. “It doesn’t follow many trends.”
Puckett has been able to keep some of the crab options on Café Sydnie Mae’s menu by purchasing colossal crabmeat, which is typically priced higher than jumbo crab meat. It’s currently costing him $50 per pound, the same as jumbo lump crabmeat. While it works well as a topping for steaks, it’s just not a feasible option for crab cakes without passing along the cost to customers.
“If you put colossal lump in a crab cake, it doesn’t show,” Puckett said. “It just tears up.”
How much should I pay for crab?
The price of crab is typically volatile, Puckett said. He’s only ever seen the price of processed crab approach this point once before.
In 2018, after a major freeze, processors were sending crabmeat to other regions of the country that were willing to pay $50 to $60 per pound, Puckett said.
“Here, the market was $20 to $25 a pound,” Puckett said. “Our availability dropped then because whatever they had was being sent elsewhere. It was just a two or three week period though. This has gone way too far and way too long.”
Prices can vary across the state. A recent check at Tony’s Seafood in Baton Rouge found only frozen crabmeat. Frozen jumbo lump crabmeat was selling for $39.99 a pound, and regular frozen lump crabmeat was $29.99.
Crab cakes are still missing from Café Sydnie Mae’s menu.
While blue crabs are plentiful in the Gulf of Mexico, they’re also caught along coastal regions around the world, including in the northeast United States and in southeast Asia.
‘I’ve never seen the prices this high.’
In the summer of 2021, a shortage of blue crabs in Chesapeake Bay along with a coronavirus surge in Indonesia sent the global price skyrocketing. Fuel costs, supply chain disruptions and worker shortages have kept prices steeper than ever into the winter offseason, when crabs burrow into sediment to escape chilly waters.
“Our main market for crabs is the Chesapeake Bay area. We set our prices in the industry based off of what they’re willing to pay,” said Chalin Delaune, chairperson for the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. “And it’s not just about the cost of the crab itself, but everything that goes into making that end product — the cost of the gas that it takes to cook those crabs, the cost of the labor, the cost of the packaging, the cost of the freight to get it from point A to point B to point C. All of those costs have just gone up drastically and, ultimately, it has to get incorporated into the price at the consumer level.”
Delaune estimates that at least 75% of crabs caught in Louisiana are exported.
Cheryl Granger, a commercial crabber based in Maurice, doesn’t ship out of state and instead focuses on supplying crabmeat to local restaurants and markets. The Acadiana plants that process her crabs are charging her about $2 more per pound than they were a year ago, she said.
Granger has had to pass along some of that cost to her customers. She’s currently selling jumbo lump crabmeat to retailers for $50 per pound.
“I’m cheaper than everybody else. I guess I’m stupid,” Granger said with a chuckle. “But I’ve never seen the prices this high. I don’t have to get rich, baby. I just have to keep my customers happy so they keep coming back.”
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