Wild Weather Has Put A Hurt On Crawfish Farmers And Lovers Along The Gulf Coast
By Brad Goins
The crawfish season in Southwest Louisiana is generally thought to run from mid-January through early July. Crawfish harvested at either end of that season may be less than ideal in the view of the crawfish purist. Thus it is that the peak months for the consumption of the crustacean are March through May.
Crawfish in ponds protected from the environment can be harvested year-round. Still, the supply of crawfish in our area is likely to be at its optimum in those March through May months.
The traditional mid-January season opener took a beating in 2018, with temperatures in places such as Lake Charles dropping to 19 degrees on Jan. 17. Temperatures for the few days on each side of that date were almost as low.
In this area, when water temperature falls below 55 degrees, crawfish tend to burrow into the mud at the bottom of the water in order to get warm. If the water gets so cold that it falls below 40, crawfish stop moving entirely.
Once the crawfish burrow in, they go into a state of hibernation until things warm up. While they’re hibernating, they aren’t eating.
They’ll come out and start eating again when the water warms up. But of course, they’ll be smaller than crawfish usually are at the same time in warmer years. They may recover their size if enough time passes. But if they’re harvested too soon, they may seem small, or even too small, to the consumer.
Ultimately, the negative effects may turn out to be less serious than they sound now. In a Jan. 21 story on the crawfish season, Greg Lutz, a professor at the LSU Ag Center’s Aquaculture Research Station in Baton Rouge, told The Advocate, “Crawfish can sit under the ice for two or three weeks with no problem.” While a longer period of ice could threaten crawfish by cutting off their oxygen, the fact is that an ice coating of longer than three weeks is virtually unheard of in our part of the country.
Weather-related problems for SWLA crawfish started before that bitter January cold run. Below-average water levels in many swamps in the area have been a challenge for area crawfish. Bradley Zaunbrecher of Buster’s Famous Boiled Crawfish in Elton laid the blame on a severe lack of rain in the area from July to November. It was good that temperatures stayed warm in SWLA during November. But the warmth was no compensation for the lack of rain.
As for the month or two ahead, a wet weather period is predicted for the future; but, of course, weather forecasts aren’t always accurate. (As we’ll see in a moment, in nearby Southeast Texas, Harvey has given crawfish water problems of a very different type.)
One last negative that might be making a draw on crawfish production in Southwest Louisiana is the virus called “white spot syndrome.” This virus has been seen among Louisiana crawfish for a decade. While it hasn’t had a great impact yet, the number of crawfish victims in Louisiana did go up last year.
The mysterious virus is still being researched. One theory is that dramatic changes in temperature weaken crawfish immune systems and increase their susceptibility to white spot syndrome. The virus has no known effect on human beings.
Stranglehold On Supply
One way crawfish harvesters are dealing with the crawfish slump is by harvesting in less productive areas that they won’t go into in a brisk season.
At the beginning of February, Baton Rouge’s WBRZ-TV reported that the city’s Country Corner was getting bags of crawfish that weighed 22 to 25 pounds. Usually, the bags the restaurant receives during that time weigh 33.
Zaunbrecher says that at Elton’s Buster’s venue, crawfish supply is “down about 80 percent … We’re having a really hard time … It’s just horrible. Our sales are down a lot for January.”
In spite of the real drains on supply, some crawfish operations are making a go of it. WBRZ reported that on Feb. 1, a total of eight venues were selling crawfish in Baton Rouge.
Some old timers suggest that people in the area have gotten spoiled by the long succession of warm winters in the area, and have become accustomed to eating crawfish in December and January. But if something approaching a real winter occurs, dining on crawfish in these months will, at the very least, mean paying higher prices for crawfish.
Buster’s has recently been charging $39.95 for all-you-can eat crawfish on Mondays through Wednesdays, and $49.95 for all you can eat Thursdays through Sundays. These prices may seem phenomenally high to some. But consumers are showing up to place their orders. And for those who are willing to pay the price, there is an unexpected benefit — big crawfish.
Big crawfish aren’t normally what one would expect from the recent weather situation. Zaunbrecher has a theory about the generous size of the crawfish. He feels that the number of crawfish who have burrowed in due to the cold has left a larger pool of available food for crawfish who remain active.
Still, he thinks, because of the weather conditions, “there won’t be a bumper crop” come March.
Southeast Texas Crop
Across the state line, in Southeast Texas, crawfish problems are similar. But the situation is even more complicated due to the effects of Harvey, and the 50-plus inches of rain it dumped on the area. Needless to say, crawfish ponds anywhere near Beaumont experienced extreme flooding.
SE Texas crawfish farmer Mike Bingham told the Beaumont Enterprise, “Harvey did a number on me. My ponds were under water for 10 days, and I’m pretty sure all of the babies got flushed right out.”
Beaumont crawfish farmer Phil Hallmark is one of those who says that the consumer’s recent tendency to expect crawfish in December and January is part of the issue. He noted that customers began calling him before Christmas to try to place orders for crawfish. He had to tell them his usual supplies were down 90 percent.
It’s hard to find a general consensus on the future of the SWLA crawfish crop for this season.
Professionals who study the crawfish aver that it is difficult to predict what it will do and say the creature is constantly surprising those who do research on it. No one is predicting season-long disaster at this point. The crawfish is adaptable and tenacious.
One way to process all this complex information is to assume that the coming months are as likely as not to see a healthy rebound for local crawfish.