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Crabbing for a living in hard work

DEBORAH CORRAO / L’Observateur / October 2, 1998

He squints into the distance searching the horizon. His eyes lock onto theobject he seeks – a styrofoam ball painted green and pink floating on top of the waters of Bayou du Large in Terrebonne Parish.

The fiberglass boat accelerates on the choppy water, the pick up rig skims the ball and brings a cage to the surface. With one fluid movement, thecrabber pulls the cage from the water , opens it, shakes his catch into a large stainless steel bin on the side of the boat, fills it with bait and throws it back into the dark bayou waters. He will repeat this motion 350times today. The crabber is running his traps.This is not a job for the lazy or those not at ease in the South Louisiana weather. But a crabber can make a good living in the state’s bays andbayous if he’s willing to work hard and dedicate himself to the business of reaping the harvest of the Louisiana’s waterways.

State regulations prohibit running the traps until a half an hour before sunrise, but Aaron Granier’s day begins long before that. He’s out of thedoor at 3 a.m. While it’s still very dark outside his Des Allemands home,Granier loads his pickup with new crab cages he plans to set out that day and the wooden crates he will use to hold today’s catch. He picks up hisdeckhand, Don Matherne, and they’re off on the 50-mile trip to where his boat is moored in Bayou du Large.

His first stop is the bait shop, where he buys three large crates of pogy fish. After loading the bait and extra traps onto his boat, it’s on to openwater. As dawn breaks he begins to run the traps.Aaron Granier is just 21, but he’s already an experienced fisherman. Helearned the business from his dad, Dave. The first time he went out on acrab boat he was 4 years old. “At that time,” he says, “I sat in a crate thewhole day.”At 13 he began working as a deckhand on his father’s boat. Aftergraduating from high school in 1995 he bought his own boat and traps.

Today seems to be a good day for Granier. The crabs are biting and histraps, while not full, will yield a good harvest. As he shakes his catchfrom one trap and scans the water for the next one, Matherne sorts the crabs, his hands in sturdy gloves to protect him from the inevitable pinch.

Smaller male crabs and immature females, known as “factory crabs” go in one crate, large females in another and large males in a third crate.

When they get back to shore, Granier will sell his factory crabs to a seafood dealership located near his boat launch for today’s going rate of 45 cents a pound.

He will sell the large females for 60 cents a pound and large males for 90 cents to restaurant owners along the way home.

A wooden crate is also set aside on the boat for the occasional softshell crab Granier will pull up in his traps. These he can sell for 80 centsapiece.

Any crab less than 5 inches across its carapace must be immediately thrown back, according to state regulations. Female crabs who bear avisible orange egg sac are also off limits. There is no limit on the numberof legal crabs a commercial fisherman can catch.

As the sun rises higher in the eastern sky, a large shadow looms on the horizon.

It is a double rigger – a shrimping boat with trawling nets on both sides.

The double rigger is the crabber’s worst enemy.

“Shrimp boats wiped me out right here,” Granier says. “A bunch of cagesare gone.”Crab traps set out in lines claimed by crabbers are often scooped up in shrimpers’ trawling nets. They are not returned.The shrimp boat is not the only enemy. Crabbers, by necessity, must leavetheir cages unattended for most of the time. Despite federal regulationsrequiring a tag on each cage engraved with that crabber’s ID number and the various color paints each crabber uses to identify his own styrofoam buoys, the crabber is at the mercy of unscrupulous fisherman who will steal from his traps or the sports fishermen who will take the harvest to use for bait.

Vince Guillory, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries crab expert, says, “We get quite a few complaints about crabbers who steal crabs or run other crabbers’ traps. The problem is enforcement. Even if thefishermen knows who is stealing from him, it could take days to catch somebody. Even then it’s a difficult case to make since we seldom catchsomeone in the act.”Once in a while an honest fisherman will empty a cage. “Once someonetook about $10 worth of crabs out of my cage and left $25 there.”Occasionally, a sports fisherman will move up alongside the crab boat and offer to buy part of the catch for bait.

Weather can also wreak havoc for the crabber. A recent tropical storm inthe Gulf swept many cages to the beach at the edge of the Gulf. “I lostabout 20 traps,” says Granier. “If the storm had hit directly, I would havelost everything.”Granier says each of his cages costs about $20. Today he has lost about 20cages for various reasons, including one that sank when its buoy got caught in the boat’s propeller and another from a line that pops loose from the buoy in the pick-up rig. He loses about 600 nets a year that have to bereplaced in order for him to make a living.

His cages must be emptied out nearly every day to avoid theft and to make enough profit to pay his expenses. A typical day may cost $300 to run theboat, buy bait, pay a deckhand. The expenses don’t include lost cages.Commercial crabbers bear additional expenses for state licensing fees.

The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries requires a crabber to have a vessel license, a crap trap license and commercial fishing license which total about $100 a year in fees. He must also have a boat registration.The crabber is also at the mercy of Mother Nature. Today the noonday sungives way to black clouds, and Granier notices thunderstorms on the distant horizon. He begins to quicken his pace, to work feverishly trying toempty his traps and head to another area before the rain comes. Hedoesn’t finish in time.

Granier says he gets caught in storms frequently. He and his deckhand areused to working through rain, extreme heat or cold, and even lightning flashes. “I can’t pay my bills if I don’t work,” says Granier. “If I went inevery time it rained, I’d never make any money.”Granier says because of his dedication he’s able to make a decent living at his trade, and Department of Wildlife and Fisheries statistics bear him out.

According to the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, more than two million pounds of blue crab are sold dockside each year in St. CharlesParish. About 43,000 pounds are sold in St. John Parish. Granier sells today’s catch to a dealer in Terrebonne Parish. More than 101/2 million pounds are sold annually in that parish.

These figures don’t take into account the crabs sold by fishermen to other businesses, like restaurants, and other seafood dealers.

But because of the hard physical labor and the constant exposure to the elements, Granier says he’s not sure he wants to trap for the rest of his life and would like to have another career to fall back on.

For the time being he plans to continue crabbing during the day while studying instrumentation at a vo-tech school in the evening.