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Effect of drought: Crawfish farmers worried about crop

Where are the crawfish this year, especially after last year's good crop? That's the question a panel of LSU AgCenter experts attempted to answer recently in meetings held in LSU AgCenter extension offices in Avoyelles, Evangeline and St. Martin parishes.

Their short answer is that a large percentage of crawfish died from last summer's drought, particularly in August and September.

“We've never had a year like this,” said LSU AgCenter aquaculture specialist Greg Lutz at the Evangeline Parish meeting in Ville Platte, La.

Crawfish farmer Carl Kincaid of Port Barre, La., can vouch for that. Kincaid, who attended the session in Evangeline Parish along with about 18 other farmers, said his crop on 30 acres isn't even a third of last year's catch.

“Yesterday I fished over 400 traps and I caught 33 pounds,” he said. The previous two years, those fields produced 150 pounds a day, he said.

Kincaid said he hopes his crawfish may just be late in developing and that he will see an improvement. “I see a lot of small ones in the traps,” Kincaid said.

Lutz said crawfish farmers should not give up on this year's crop yet, because many of the crawfish are small, and those will grow to marketable size in a few weeks.

The peak of the Louisiana crawfish harvest season usually comes in March and April, Lutz said, but this year the crop might not be at its best until April or May.

Mark Shirley, another LSU AgCenter aquaculture specialist, said rainfall in the Acadiana region is 15 to 20 inches less than normal, and he added the crawfish catch appears to be down in most areas. “I'm guessing you only have a quarter what you should have by now,” Shirley said.

LSU AgCenter aquaculture researcher Robert Romaire said the catch at the LSU AgCenter research facility in Baton Rouge, La., is a third what it usually is.

Shirley said crawfish production generally coincides with the amount of rainfall from July through November. The rainfall from that period last year is similar to the scant rainfall that resulted in the drought of 1999.

Turning to another problem, Shirley explained many fields in Vermilion Parish were flooded by Hurricane Rita's storm surge — which brought redfish, crabs and garfish that fed on the crawfish. “I don't expect much production to come out of those fields,” he said.

Even areas not affected as heavily by the storm are suffering because vegetation blown into the water by the hurricane has decomposed and robbed the water of oxygen, Shirley said.

In 14,000 acres of Vermilion Parish crawfish ponds, Shirley said, only three ponds have produced well during the winter. “Most of the acres across the state are bad,” he added.

Romaire said researchers at the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station found a large number of dead crawfish in burrows last fall — stressing that in good years the survival rate is much higher than seen this year. Romaire explained crawfish usually lay eggs from September to October, but the spawn can be much later.

As if production problems weren't enough, Lutz said the dispersed Louisiana population has created potential problems, as well. “Not only are we in an unusual year for production, we are in an unusual situation for markets,” Lutz said.

New Orleans residents who usually bought large amounts of crawfish now live in other states, Lutz said, adding, however, the disbursement might be good for the crawfish industry if those people persuade their new neighbors to eat crawfish, too. He said he's gotten several out-of-state calls from people asking where they can buy crawfish.

Because of high prices, Shirley said, most of the crawfish will be boiled this season. Most of the packaged tail meat will come from cheaper imported crawfish, he said.

Bruce Schultz writes for the LSU AgCenter.

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