Many nights, Trudy Luke is up all night monitoring her blue crabs.

Producing soft-shell blue crabs is all about the timing — being ready to take a crab from the tank in the small window after it has shed its hard shell — which often means tending to the crabs in the middle of the night.

"Soft-shell crabbing is like taking care of a newborn baby. It's a full-time job," said Luke, owner of Luke's Seafood in Dulac. "You lose a lot of sleep."

But for Luke, it's worth it. She loves caring for the crabs, and it's become her way of life since she opened up her seafood business in 1999. However, she is an outlier in the Louisiana soft-shell crab industry, which has been rapidly losing producers in the last few decades.

In 1945, about 2.4 million pounds of soft-shell crab was produced in the Bayou State, which is more than 300 times what was produced in 2015, according to the Louisiana Sea Grant, an LSU-based program that works to promote stewardship of the state’s coastal resources.

Just since the 1990s, the number of soft-shell crab producers has seen a sixfold drop, from about 300 producers in 1991 to fewer than 50 in the state today, according to Julie Lively, with the Louisiana Sea Grant.

Luke has felt the change.

This past year, she said, she couldn't keep up with the demand for her soft-shell crabs, even though, on average, soft-shell crabs sell for seven times more than their hard-shell counterparts, according to the Louisiana Sea Grant. 

"I'm totally wiped out. I couldn't produce enough," Luke said.

Fishery and marine specialists haven't been able to pinpoint why Louisiana's soft-shell crab industry has continued to suffer — and until recently, few realized just how much it had declined, said Lively, who also is a fisheries specialist for the LSU AgCenter.

Lively teamed up with researchers from the University of Maryland and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science last December to begin what she described as a multi-year project to determine what's affecting the soft-shell blue crab industry and find ways to preserve it and make it more profitable and successful. The research collaboration across the three states is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries.

"It's kind of a hidden industry we don't know a lot about," Lively said. "When we started this summer to try to find shedders to work with, we were able to calculate there's only between 19 and 40 (producers) in the state."

To sell soft-shells, crabbers put "peelers" or "shedders," which are crabs at a certain stage in their lives, into holding tanks, waiting until they split their hard-shell back. Then, crabbers have a few hours, at best, to remove the freshly molted crabs from the water before a new exoskeleton hardens.

"If you get a Baton Rouge or New Orleans soft-shell, historically it would have been from Louisiana, but they're probably buying from other states (now)," Lively said. In the past, Louisiana exported its abundance of soft-shell crabs, but Lively believes that's no longer the case.

Researchers are investigating the effect of a certain virus found in blue crabs along the East Coast, originally discovered by Eric Schott, the lead researcher on this project from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Schott found the virus, which doesn't affect humans, killed about 20 percent of crabs in the soft-shell process, and he believes it could also be an issue in Louisiana.

“I think that if we can assure that people don’t lose as many crabs to mortality, that it will be more profitable, it will bring more people back into the practice," Schott said.

Luke said she's noticed that the percentage of her crabs that die in the shedding process has risen recently, and she's not sure why. She's worked with Lively in the past and looks forward to hearing from her how to improve her success.

And that's the next step for Schott, Lively and their team. Though they will continue to investigate other factors in the overall decline of blue crabs, they are planning workshops and seminars for fisheries and crabbers, in both Louisiana and Maryland.

"I think in Maryland, we can learn from what Louisiana is doing as far as communicating with fishermen," Schott said.

Lively will visit his state in February to lead a workshop, something Lively has done in the past for fishermen and crabbers in her state.  

The researchers want to share what they find so soft-shell producers can, hopefully, once again flourish.

"As scientists, we don't want to get into the business of telling people what to do," Schott said. "The goal is to provide information and be a resource for fishermen and soft-shell producers, (so they can operate) more successfully and profitably.”

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.