For 50 years, Don’s Seafood and Steakhouse in downtown Lafayette has specialized in crawfish dishes — always featuring Louisiana crawfish. But this year, the menu is likely to get a bit slimmer.
Farmers, fishers and buyers say only about 20 percent of the state’s crawfish crop survived the salty water brought inland by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and a drought in the Atchafalaya basin.
And Don’s Seafood owner Ashby “Rocky” Landry Jr. said he refuses to put Chinese crawfish in his dishes. Never has, never will.
Crawfish lovers are unlikely to find the live Louisiana delicacy for less than $3 a pound wholesale in coming months. And processed crawfish meat, which is unlikely to show up at all, is likely to fetch $30 a pound.
The crawfish-starved consumer is at the end of a long list of people who will be affected by the scarcity of mudbugs. Without the extra income that crawfish brings to rice farmers, some may hang up their traps, agriculture experts say. And about 5,000 seasonal jobs are likely to be eliminated if the state’s 15 to 20 crawfish-processing plants don’t open. Additionally, an untold number of independent fishers who catch wild crawfish may see their crawfish income disappear this season.
“I’ve never seen it this bad,” said David Savoy, past president of the Louisiana Crawfish Farmers Association, who raises rice and crawfish about 30 miles northwest of Lafayette. He said his production in December was about one-third of, or 11,000 pounds below, his December 2004 harvest.
It’s estimated that the majority of the 78 million pounds of crawfish produced last year came from the areas damaged by severe weather: Rita, Katrina and a drought in the south-central part of the state.
Louisiana, the largest producer of crawfish in North America, brings its crawfish to consumers in two ways. First is the licensed fishers who use traps, primarily in the Atchafalaya basin, who caught a total of 8.3 million pounds with a wholesale value of nearly $5 million in 2004. Second, the state’s 1,226 farmers produce 69.5 million pounds of crawfish on 118,250 acres last year for a wholesale value of $41.7 million.
Nothing to eat
But this year, Hurricanes Rita’s storm surge wiped out crawfish ponds and their symbiotic rice fields in Cameron and Vermilion parishes in the south.
“These areas were completely inundated with tidal surge,” said farmer David la Cour. “It left aquatic life, fish, crabs and shrimp, destroying the seed crop.”
Rice farmers often “seed” their rice fields with crawfish. In the summer months, when the rice is growing and the water table is lower, the crawfish burrow down to the water table. Female crawfish lay their eggs, and the hatchlings attach to the mother’s tail. After farmers harvest the rice, they flood their fields. That’s the sign for a female to dig to the surface and feed on the green shoots left from the harvested rice.
While crawfish can tolerate high salt content, the rice and grasses crawfish feed on can’t. The salinity from the surge killed the short green shoots of harvested rice on which the crawfish would eat. Don Benoit, a crawfish farmer and buyer, said the salinity level in his fields was 8,500 to 9,000 parts per million, about five times what the vegetation needed to support crawfish can withstand.
“The LSU Agriculture Center has no experience with this kind of condition. We don’t know what the parameters of this are, of how long it will take to get the salt out of the soil and irrigated. And our irrigation sources have salt in them,” said la Cour, who farms 500 acres.
La Cour and others are concerned that the high salinity levels could last for years.
Farmers who weren’t affected by the salty storm surge were nonetheless affected by the storm.
“The tidal surge stopped five miles from my property, but water quality is still our biggest problem,” Savoy said. Salty rains and wind-driven leaves and other organic debris turned ponds black, killing the oxygen in the ponds that helps keep the rice shoots alive.
The crawfish harvest is often the lagniappe that determines whether farmers end the year in the red or in the black, Savoy said.
“We’ve had the highest rice production in the history of this state,” Savoy said, but prices are so low that farmers aren’t making enough to pay the bills. “Without the crawfish, they may be dead in the water.
“I fear we’ll see a big loss of farmers, as high as 80 percent,” he said. “When they go out and get that (nonfarming) job, we could lose a generation of farmers. You’ll have a rough time getting them back.”
The live crawfish harvesting season by licensed fishers, which normally begins in March, is in jeopardy because drought conditions and low water levels have almost dried out the Atchafalaya basin.
If river waters don’t rise, or if substantial rains don’t fall this winter, the wild live crawfish season will also be very poor.
“It’s just a double whammy this year,” said Stephen Minvielle of Abbeville, chairman of the Louisiana Crawfish Promotion and Research Board, a state agency.
Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bob Odom said he sees no financial relief for crawfish farmers and producers in state or federal relief packages to date, other than the tax breaks contained for businesses in the Gulf Recovery Act passed by Congress. But to take advantage of that assistance, Odom said, “you’ve got to make money, and they’re not.”
And unlike rice, crawfish is not an agricultural commodity, so farmers are not eligible for crop insurance. Many farmers and processors are demanding this insurance, which Odom supports.
“They’re telling me $50 million in losses,” Odom said. Crawfish aren’t the agriculture industry’s only problem. Pecans, cotton and livestock were also devastated in storm areas, even in northern sections of the state. Odom places the need for the state’s agricultural economic relief at $1.5 billion to $2 billion.
Processing plants close
If the demand is met for live crawfish, crawfish are then sent to processing plants, where they are stripped down to their meat by hand. To date, none of the 15 to 20 processing plants in Louisiana have opened.
It takes 7 to 9 pounds of live crawfish to create one pound of peeled tail meat. Live crawfish are selling for about $3 a pound, twice what they were selling for in December 2004. That means processors have to pay at least $21 to buy enough to make a pound of peeled crawfish, not counting the processors’ costs for labor or fuel. Think $30 or more for a pound of peeled tails — something no consumer would pay in the local grocery, farmers and officials say.
“No processing plants are going to open at those prices,” Minvielle said.
Some hold out hope that by the end of the summer, there may be enough mudbugs around for processing plants to crank up, but Savoy points out that prices would have to be in the 25 cent to 50 cent range to warrant that.
For now, Louisiana Restaurant Association Executive Director Tom Weatherly said, local restaurants are making do with frozen local tail meat that survived — Landry is working his way through 25,000 pounds — but admits that the local delicacy will be expensive and eventually disappear from local menus if the season is a total bust.
Minvielle said he believes that Chinese crawfish will take over a much larger share of restaurant customers.
“To tell you the truth, there’s a lot of restaurants out there using Asian crawfish right now, but they just won’t admit it,” Minvielle said.
Landry is optimistic. He said crawfish farming in the northern part of Louisiana will help increase production by the end of the season.
But he also worries about how much frozen crawfish was lost in the New Orleans area during Katrina, and whether demand from the area will keep prices prohibitively high. Or will the reduction in restaurants, residents and tourists soften demand?
Landry said he believes packaged crawfish will be produced in the late season — but price increases will certainly show up on the menu.
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Greg Thomas can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3399