From Laura Walck at The Sun Herald in Biloxi-Gulfport, Mississippi:
Forget ham and turkey. For Coastians, seafood is the highlight of a holiday table.
Oyster dressing, marinated crab claws, boiled shrimp, crab cakes, oysters on the half shell, stuffed shrimp, fried everything.
"The Christmas season is the busiest time of the year because everyone likes to make their own special seafood gumbo and their momma's favorite oyster dressing," said Andrew Gunkel, general manager of Quality Poultry and Seafood in Biloxi.
This year, though, prices may be at an all-time high for local bounty.
"They're the highest they've been since we opened up the Half Shell in 2009," said Bob Taylor, president of Gulf Coast Restaurant Group.
Gunkel said a shortage of shrimp and crab are driving up prices significantly, and oysters are only slightly more expensive than last year.
Bad news on crab
Blue crab, though, may be seeing its worst year in decades.
"This has been the worst season of domestic blue crab since we've been in business the past eight years," said Rob Heffner, who oversees purchasing for GCRG. "It's forced a lot of companies to have to source to pasteurized, imported crab meat because there literally is no availability of blue crab, or it's 50 to 70 percent increase in normal prices."
Gunkel, who likes making marinated crab claws during the holidays, said he has heard the same thing. A fisherman in his 70s who frequents his business told him recently it's the worst year he's ever seen as far as being able to find blue crabs in the Sound.
Last year, the total poundage of blue crabs caught -- known as landings -- was 800,000, according to the Department of Marine Resources. This year, preliminary numbers through August show just under 200,000 pounds.
"Landings are very far down this year," said Traci Floyd, head of DMR's Shrimp and Crab Bureau.
Desporte said he hasn't noticed an unusual increase in crab prices, but has been stockpiling early to beat the Christmas rush.
Harriet Perry, a senior research scientist and expert on blue crabs at USM's Gulf Coast Research Lab, said blue crab has been in a sharp decline since the mid-1990s for a number of reasons, including a drought climate, an abundance of predators and habitat loss.
"One of the major concerns to me is the loss of habitat," Floyd said. "We've lost -- within the Mississippi Sound -- almost 25 percent of our wetlands, and that's primary habitat for blue crabs."
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