by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood New Editor
Snow, sleet and freezing temperatures have put the Louisiana crawfish season in the freezer. The arctic weather affecting the heart of the Bayou state means crawfish aren’t eating and likely to be smaller than normal at peak season.
Thousands of red and blue claws should be poking out of green, mesh sacks at the crawfish farms of Joey Schneider and Lindsey “Red” Aucoin in Eunice, but instead their ponds remain idle.
“It’s terrible, there are very few crawfish being caught, said Aucoin, who partners with Schneider in the crawfish business. “With this cold weather the crawfish are not moving around, and not biting. So far this year we have caught less than 10% of what we did this time last year.”
Last year Eunice area ponds were already producing more than 200 pounds of crawfish per acre – a good yield for the time of year. But the cold weather has caused breeding ponds to be coated with ice, and according to Aucoin, “the water has been so cold so long, and frozen so often, that even the mud is freezing.”
“When it snows three times in two weeks you know you have a problem,” said Schneider. “We’ve had thick ice on a lot of our ponds. Those that are trying to harvest are only bringing in a sack of crawfish for every 100 acres.”
Crawfish is a big business and getting bigger. “The annual yield ranges from 120 million to 150 million pounds,” according to the Louisiana Crawfish Promotion and Research Board.
The Bayou state produces the bulk of the nation’s crawfish crop. According to the LSU AgCenter, last year it produced approximately 91 million pounds, having a value of $152.8 million.
The freeze is putting local suppliers on ice. Prices for the tasty crustaceans for consumers have reached almost $8 a pound, double the normal $3 to $4 a pound.
“We are off to a very slow start,” said Frank Randol, owner of Lafayette’s Randol’s Restaurant. “We’ve seen years like this before, but a cold snap like this hasn’t occurred in decades. It’s not looking very good for our crawfish farmers, we’ll just have to see how it plays out.”
Randol said that his restaurant, known for boiled crawfish, has paid as high as $4.25 lb for the Bayou mudbug. He has not passed the added cost on to his customers as of yet. “Like Chick-Fil-A, right now we’re encouraging people to eat mor chikin,” he said.
In a recent interview, Crawfish Board director Stephen Minvielle said he’s worried about the young crawfish hatched in the autumn. “This time of year that young crop is probably the size of a pencil eraser. Like puppies, kittens and calves, baby crawfish are more delicate” than adults, he said.
According to Greg Lutz, an LSU AgCenter aquaculture specialist, the crawfish babies should survive.
“The cold wouldn’t kill even newly hatched babies, he said. “The only way they would die is if they were in very shallow water and literally got frozen into the ice,” Lutz said.
When water temperatures are below 50 degrees crawfish stay dormant, nestling under dead plants at the bottom of the ponds rather than looking for food.
“Every week we have where the water temperature is below 50 degrees is a week longer before they get to market size,” said the aquaculture specialist.
“We would be losing money if we tried to fish our ponds,” Aucoin said. “You still using the same amount of gasoline, the same amount of bait, and of course labor costs. And because the water is so cold you’d be lucky to get three or four crawfish in a trap.”
Peak season for crawfish consumption is Mardi Gras and Easter.
“We have one thing going for us in our favor this year,” Schneider said. “Both Mardi Gras and Easter are happening late. I think it’s fair to say that we’re definitely going to be behind what we would be in a normal season, but if the weather warms up the crawfish are there.”
According to the seasoned Eunice farmer, as soon as the temperatures start to rise he will start putting traps into the ponds. “We are waiting to see if we still can’t make a little money yet this year. We just need some sunshine and warm weather to get that water temperature up, and the crawfish swimming,” he said.