At the Oklahoma City location of the Cajun-style seafood chain Hook & Reel, the decor is unsurprisingly nautical. Thick braids of rope are coiled decoratively around pillars, and a plastic shark hangs from the ceiling, baring its teeth in a wide, leering smile. Seafood comes to tables piled on platters or nested in fry baskets. Diners are offered gloves to wear as they crack open crab legs and lobster claws. Bibs, as you can imagine, play a major role here. Despite the challenges restaurant owners face in the wake of the pandemic, Cajun-style chains like Hook & Reel and independent Cajun seafood restaurants across the country have seen an uptick in popularity in recent years.
But while they’re more popular than ever, Cajun-style seafood restaurants now face a particular challenge: On October 10 the Alaska Department of Fish and Game canceled this year’s snow crab season in the Bering Sea, citing a steep decline in snow crab population. While in 2018 there were 11.7 billion snow crabs in the Bering Sea, this year’s population has plummeted to just 1.9 billion. After the news was announced, Cajun seafood restaurants began carefully monitoring the price of snow crab, looking for ways to adjust their menus, and grappling with the long-term sustainability of the seafood industry.
While snow crab isn’t the centerpiece of Cajun cuisine, some restaurants sell thousands of pounds of the crab per month. That’s the case at many locations of Storming Crab, a seafood boil chain whose 22 outposts offer customizable platters piled high with, among other things, plenty of crab. Cherry Chen, a manager at the restaurant’s Ocala, Florida, franchise, says snow crab is particularly popular, and estimates that her restaurant goes through at least 2,100 pounds per month.
For Gwen Woods, co-owner of the Crabby Shack in Brooklyn, New York, the scarcity of snow crabs has been a major cause for concern. “We have snow crab sandwiches and tacos, which are 80% of our menu,” she says. She and her business partner are already in the process of pivoting their menu away from snow crab by adding more fish options and even some meat items to the menu.
Cajun cooking, which dates back to the 18th century, was born in Louisiana and incorporates elements of French, Spanish, and West African cooking to transform ingredients native to the Louisiana area—seafood in particular—into a distinct regional cuisine. Staples like crawfish and andouille sausage, as well as flavors like bay leaf and cayenne pepper, are central to Cajun cooking. As Cajun cooking has gained wider national popularity over the past 20 years, the menus of Cajun restaurants have expanded to include seafood native to other parts of the world such as Alaskan king crab, Dungeness crab, and, of course, snow crab. Though Cajun-style seafood restaurants have long been popular along the Gulf Coast, they’ve seen a rise in popularity in New York, across the eastern seaboard, and in other cities around the country.
A proliferation of Cajun-style restaurants means that demand for seafood, including snow crab, is increasing. But the disappearance of several billion crabs isn’t just a product of high demand. So what happened to the almost 10 billion missing snow crabs? Well, experts aren’t exactly sure. Many suspect warming waters are to blame, limiting the crabs’ food supply and leaving them vulnerable to disease. Wes Jones, the fisheries, research, and development director for the private nonprofit Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, told Time that, according to the biologists he works with, the steep decline in snow crabs could have stemmed from a bout of mass cannibalism within the population. Still others believe the crabs might have simply walked off the continental shelf. Regardless of the cause, the supply of snow crabs to restaurants across the country will be intensely curtailed in the coming months, and some experts like Luke Scalzi, an Alaskan fisherman and boat captain, believe that Alaska’s snow crab population may not return to levels appropriate for harvesting for as many as four years.