Tenacious Mudbugs

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Tenacious Mudbugs

‘We Ain’t Going Nowhere’

By Madelaine B. Landry

The next time you dive into a pile of boiled, spicy crawfish, pause a moment to offer thanks to Percy Viosca, “a greatly underappreciated Louisiana naturalist working for the state’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.” In the 1930s, according to Jerry G. Walls, it was Viosca who attempted to increase public awareness for the now widely popular crustacean. 

 “Viosca tried to get Cajuns and other Louisianans to look at crawfish not just as poverty or Lenten food, but as a crop that could be intensively harvested several months a year and sold both locally and across the United States,” writes Walls.

Walls’ 2009 book, Crawfishes of Louisiana, is the definitive resource for fans of the formerly modest mudbug. He states that shrimp had long been the preferred Lenten food in a predominantly Catholic culture. That remained true until a few Cajuns pinched and popped out the first boiled crawfish tail and realized one could barely tell one from a shrimp for taste, texture and cooking versatility. And, as an extra incentive, you could catch your own crawfish easier than you could shrimp. Back then, you could also buy them for pennies a pound. 

The story behind why that has changed has as many twists and turns as the bayous in which the highly-sought-after crustaceans are caught. 

Let’s use a trick of the feisty crawfish and back up a bit. Despite the beloved legend, lobsters did not get deported during Le Grand Dérangement, shrinking ever smaller as they swam their way down South. It’s a lovely legend, but the Acadians were, in fact, not big eaters of crawfish. Walls notes that during the 18th century, crawfish were more likely to be found in the Creole cuisine of New Orleans. “Cajuns were poor but proud, and eating ‘mudbugs’ or ‘crawdads’ would be just an admission of their poverty.”

Today, crawfish get boiled by the tons, pinched, peeled and placed in gumbos, bisques and étouffées. They’ve become a delicacy; think “crack-in-a-hard-shell.” Watching a squeamish diner eat their first boiled bug can be frustrating and hilarious. 

Alive, a brave mudbug gets defensive, swinging its claws, showing off its legs, spines and thick shells. But even boiled, they can be very intimidating to a crawfish-eating virgin. These uninitiated folks observe a “seasoned” crawfish eater going through mounds in minutes and wonder just how they’re getting to the good stuff. Plenty of napkins, lots of practice and cold beer seem to be a crawfish-eater’s secret. 

The modern crawfish industry is quite profitable for fishermen, independent producers, processors, caterers and restaurants. 

“Commercial sales of crawfish in Louisiana date back to the late 1800s, and today’s crawfish industry includes millions of pounds harvested from farms and natural habitats in the state,” according to LSU Agricultural researchers. 

Besides overcoming the former mindset of crawfish as meat for poor folks, the crawfish industry has historically been challenged by other threats. Still, by 1970, crawfish were being raised in rice fields across the state as a second crop. Their popularity poured over into neighboring states like Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas. Walls states that by 1980, “there were over 100,000 acres of crawfish ponds (including rice fields) in production, turning out as much as 100 million pounds of crawfish a year worth $70 million to the Louisiana economy.” 

As the 1990s arrived, so did a surprising foreign threat — the importation of Chinese crawfish. The amazingly adaptable and edible Red Swamp Crayfish had only itself to blame, bringing about its own near demise. Walls recounts how its introduction globally between 1920 and 1960 caused many problems. 

“It carries a disease known as fungal crawfish pest, which virtually wiped out the large native crawfish species of Europe.” Its penchant for destroying levees in Africa and parts of Asia soon gained it a reputation as a pest, one to be hunted and eliminated. But not in China.

 “In China, it adapted easily to rice culture methods and, as in Louisiana, became a second crop on rice lands,” says Walls. The Chinese could take advantage of cheaper labor for harvesting and processing, as well as apply some innovative marketing. 

In the early ‘90s, Chinese crawfish all but forced Louisiana-raised crawfish out of the market. The commercial enterprise was defenseless until an ingenious advertising and tourism idea took hold in Louisiana: the birth of the Crawfish Festival. That is hardly a surprise in a state where festivals promote anything that can be eaten, fished, shot, planted or put in a roux.

For decades now, the Atchafalaya Basin town of Breaux Bridge has turned itself into the “Crawfish Capital of the World” on the first weekend of May. Crawfish races, crawfish cook-offs and the crowning of crawfish royalty have all become part of the festival fun, complete with spicy crawfish boiling, equally well-seasoned Cajun music and street dancing. 

An extremely popular and profitable event, the festival is overseen by the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival Association. Volunteers work tirelessly to promote the crawfish industry in Louisiana and the culture of Cajun Country. It has also become a philanthropic effort. According to its website, “The BBCFA has to date contributed $1,300,000 to civic organizations and city improvements.”

But the COVID pandemic forced the festival’s cancellation in 2020 and 2021. 

Mother Nature had another surprise in the arrivals of Hurricanes Laura and Delta, both of which dealt a one-two punch to the state’s crawfish industry. Then came an unprecedented freeze in February. The combination of the pandemic and weather events have forced many Louisiana crawfish producers and processors to reevaluate how best to satisfy the irresistible crawfish envie that takes hold of Louisiana folks every spring. 

SWLA independent crawfish producer Burt Tietje admits that 2020 started out well and built steadily every week until the Easter season arrived, and with it, the COVID shutdown.

“That is always the busiest and most profitable time of the year. Boiling houses with drive-thru windows certainly did their best to pick up the slack. But the fact was, we had too many crawfish chasing too few consumers, thereby cratering prices. On my small farm, (115 acres of crawfish), we caught 30,000 pounds more than 2019, but our gross sales fell by $40,000. We suffered the worst average price-per-pound since my first year in the crawfish business in 1995.”

In a year with few positives, Tietje was happy to witness consumers getting their fill of crawfish at good prices. Processors could buy large quantities of crawfish cheaply, which avoided a total market collapse for the producers.

Ask anyone who’s ever pinched a head and sucked out the spicy goodness — the once-humble mudbug has rightfully earned its place in our culture, cuisine and state economy. The industry has grown to include not only crawfish production, but also research into crawfish biology, pond design, forage management, stocking, water quality, harvesting and marketing. From the days where barefoot kids baited nets with smelly chicken parts and hauled in a few crustaceans to boil for the fun of it, Louisiana crawfish have evolved into a big business. 

Mark Shirley, area agent for Southwest Louisiana’s LSU AgCenter, is part of the educational and research arm of the industry. The center’s mission is to help create a “healthy aquatic habitat for crawfish to reproduce and grow throughout the season.” Shirley and his colleagues emphasize that weather factors influence water quality, educating farmers on standards and practices that will affect the growth and survival of their crawfish crop. Shirley sees a positive trend in the number of drive-thru boiling places that opened last season, and remain in business in 2021. 

 “That is helping move a good bit of crawfish.  And that is not just here in south Louisiana, but in other markets in neighboring states. Processors had some issues with getting their guest labor force in this season.  The catch is building up in early April so that processors are in full operation right now and for the next month or more.”

Shirley says the harvest season got off to a slow start over the past winter, resulting in short supplies that drove up prices in December and January of 2021. An unusual week-long freeze during Mardi Gras stopped crawfish movement to the traps and stymied their growth.  “At the same time, it stopped the demand for crawfish. Crawfish did not come to the traps, fishermen did not want to get out in the cold, roads were icy, so distributors didn’t want to deliver crawfish, and consumers were eating gumbo, not boiled crawfish, to stay warm.”

Continued colder temperatures in March helped sustain the slowdown, putting the 2021 season about a month behind, notes Shirley. “Prices always reflect what the production and the demand are throughout the season. The price to the fishermen will usually drop as the production increases. The price to the consumers will usually adjust also.”

Tietje agrees that the unusual weather inhibited growth and movement. However, he sees the size of the crawfish improving this season and the demand growing stronger. “Sales for the week after Easter are still through the roof, probably fueled by federal stimulus money hitting local bank accounts. I also understand that there is some demand for catered crawfish again after being completely shut down last year.” 

Tietje is optimistic, albeit cautiously so, when asked for predictions on the 2021 season’s progress. “As for prices, we always see the highest prices for crawfish when the season begins in January because the demand is high and the production is low. Prices fall all year long as the supply grows with the warming spring temperatures. This season’s crawfish catch has still not exploded because we are still dealing with cool water temperatures in the ponds. To date I have only caught a third of what I caught last year, but the price is twice as high.” 

 “In 2019, the last full accounting of production from LSU AgCenter, the industry was $209 million,” notes Tietje. “I would add that farm-raised crawfish are now something like 80 percent of the crawfish consumed. In Jeff Davis Parish in the year 2000, crawfish accounted for 2 percent of farm income. Today that number is 46 percent. Crawfish is what keeps us in the grain business in my neck of the woods.”

 “Last year, because crawfish farmers reported their acreage to USDA to get COVID relief payments, we estimated 255,000 acres of farmed crawfish,” says Shirley.

Projections like these make it obvious that Louisiana will remain the largest crawfish-producing state for the foreseeable future.

In the devastating Louisiana Great Flood of 1927, food scarcity was a huge problem for survivors. Homes and thousands of square miles of crops had been destroyed.  Many people perished, while others waited days to be rescued off rooftops. In his book, Walls recounts how Red Cross workers tried to convince Cajuns to eat more crawfish throughout the food crisis. They were a great source of protein and readily available. But folks remained convinced they were only suitable if you couldn’t afford anything else like “good fish,” if it was Lent or if starvation was your only alternative. 

Had efforts by Percy Viosca and other visionaries not encouraged pond culture studies or explored methods of collection in places like the Atchafalaya Basin, where would we be today when our crawfish envie hits hardest? 

It’s been suggested by a few pundits that a crawfish should replace the eagle as the national symbol of strength. Placed in the path of an oncoming train, the majestic bird flies off when it sees the engine approaching. Not the crawfish; it bravely puts up its claws to stop it. 

Whether they’re found in Louisiana bayous, ponds, rivers or crawfish chimneys in your front yard, Clovis Crawfish and his countless courageous cousins are audacious and tenacious creatures. Market competition, droughts, hurricanes, floods, freezes and pandemics have yet to repress their popularity. It’s hard to find anyone in SWLA who can imagine a Good Friday get-together without a big kettle of spicy, steaming pounds of the main attraction, served with potatoes and corn.  Mais … no!

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