On Bolivar Peninsula, residents celebrate the blue crab
Piles of crab traps are stacked at Delino’s Bolivar Yacht Basin Bait Camp on Bolivar Peninsula.
There are broken traps, and traps with weeds growing through them, and traps that have been freshly power-washed and bright yellow traps that are brand new. They’re stacked six or eight high at the end of a broken driveway on the peninsula’s west end.
Delino Comeaux, 40, the bait camp’s owner, sells the traps to visitors and locals who are interested in catching blue crabs. Comeaux is the local expert. He’s been crabbing since he was 16 years old.
Comeaux hands out advice for free with his crab trap sales. Crabbing is an exercise in leave-it-and-wait fishing. The best place to put a trap is at the end of a dock or pier, he said. Let it sit for a while, and then, when you’re hungry enough, pull up the trap and see what awaits you.
“When it gets to summer, they’re everywhere,” Comeaux said. “In the winter, you have to go to the oyster reefs, where it’s deeper water. But this time of year, they come in all the little canals.”
As a demonstration, he walks over to the end of one of his piers, and pulls up a trap. Five good-sized crabs are sitting inside.
In Texas, blue crabs live in abundance in the brackish waters of Galveston Bay and other estuaries. They spend most of their lives under the water in the bays and channels and tributaries in marsh grasses, crawling sideways along silty sea floors searching for clams and oysters and plants and dead fish and other, smaller crabs to feed on.
The crab’s role in the ecosystem is both predator and prey. Almost anything bigger than a crab will eat a crab: birds, fish, stingrays, sharks and humans.
“There’s not a whole lot that doesn’t like to eat crab,” said Zach Olsen, a researcher with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department Habitat Assessment Team.
Because blue crabs in Texas will live and multiply throughout the entire year, they hold an important place in keeping the rest of the local circle of life moving, Olsen said.
That the blue crab will eat almost anything it can find also means that catching them is more of a test of a crabber’s common sense than of a battle against a wily foe.
Although a lot of people bait their traps with chicken necks, Comeaux prefers to use shad. Either will do the trick, he said.
The most common mistake that people make after buying one of his crab traps? Putting it in the water upside down.
“They’ll call me and say, ‘We didn’t catch nothing,’” Comeaux said. The trick is to keep the holes in to the trap near the ground.
Comeaux and his father, Joe, are some of the last commercial crabbers in Galveston County. Most of the families that once ran commercial crab companies have shut down, Comeaux said. Many of the companies were run, and run successfully, by immigrant families, he said.
As those families sent their children to college, the businesses started to fade away, he said.
The generational decline of commercial crabbers could also be attributed to shrinking crab stocks in Texas. In the late 1980s, Texas commercial crabbers were harvesting nearly 12 million pounds of crab annually.
By the early 2000s, the annual catch had decreased to about 3 million pounds, according to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.
The department attributed the decrease in numbers to over-harvesting, and a loss of crab habitat to development. The numbers have stabilized in recent years, thanks to state programs that limit the number of commercial crab licenses and crab traps in the water and impose size restrictions.
In recent years, the Texas crab population seems to have stopped decreasing, although the numbers haven’t rebounded to their historical highs, Olsen said.
“The thing we’re looking at right now is how to get those crab numbers back up,” Olsen said. “It’s a low plateau right now. These things are never simple. There are impacts from the environment, there are impacts from fishing. It’s certainly something we’re tracking closely.”
In 2016, Texas fishermen reported taking in about 5 million pounds of crab, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
In terms of total catch, Texas is a relatively minor player in the national blue crab harvest. In 2016, it accounted for just more than 3 percent of all the crabs reported harvested in the United States. Louisiana produced the largest catch, at about 40 million pounds, 24 percent of the national harvest.
Regardless of how many Comeaux is catching, most of his harvest is sent to a processing plant in Anahuac, where it’s packed into boxes and sent by airplane to the northeast, to places such as Delaware and Maryland, where diners have a voracious appetite for crabs. He also keeps a small amount aside and supplies local restaurants, he said.
If there aren’t as many commercial crabbers around as there used to be, there are still people around trying to keep the crab spirit alive.
Driving east from Comeaux’s bait camp on state Highway 87, toward Crystal Beach, a gigantic sign featuring a smiling crab advertises the home of the Texas Crab Festival, an annual event that’s been held on Mother’s Day Weekend every year for the past 35 years.
In 2019, the festival moved from its original home at Gregory Park to a new lot, once owned by the Texas Frog Fest, an event that didn’t have the same lasting power as its crustacean-themed competitor.
The crab festival is a celebration of Bolivar Peninsula, and raises money for scholarships and grants for local students and educational programs, said Tom Osten, the chairman of Texas Crab Festival Charities, the nonprofit group that runs the event.
True to the theme, every vendor at the festival is required to serve at least one crab-based dish.
Since 2012, the group has given out more than $400,000 to various causes, Osten said.
Osten grew up on Bolivar Peninsula and knew many of the families who once made their livings off crabs. Those families aren’t around these days, but the people who remember the peninsula as a booming crab source are, he said.
The festival, its longevity and its purpose are a reflection of the crabs’ local legacy, said Gerry Lang, the festival’s outreach coordinator.
“The crabs that we talk about, they give back to our community,” Lang said. “The crabs are what brought people here.”