Illustrating the frustration many Louisiana's crawfish farmers are feeling, Ronnie Sonnier spent the two days before an Easter holiday family gathering fishing his ponds for a feast large enough to fill the crawfish cravings of his extended family. Instead, what he harvested on his Allen Parish ponds were two sacks of crawfish, a small fraction of what he should have found ensnared within the confines of his red and silver traps.
“I fished for two days and only caught two sacks — about 70 pounds of crawfish. By now, we should be catching 10 sacks a day in a pond,” Sonnier says.
“Nobody in our area is catching a lot of crawfish. They're just not there.”
Sonnier says he's not even catching enough crawfish on his south Louisiana farm to make the short trip to his wholesaler. “They're that short. It's as bad as last year or worse, but nobody seems to really know why it's so bad.”
To make matters worse, wholesale crawfish prices have recently plummeted to about a dollar per pound. Traditionally, the price of crawfish drops following the end of the high-demand Lenten season after Easter Sunday.
The price drop leaves farmers with little incentive to spend the time necessary to check their crawfish traps. “Most farmers stop fishing the latter part of June and start restocking for next year. But, if you're only catching a sack or two of crawfish at a time and you're only getting a dollar a pound for them, it's hardly worth the effort,” Sonnier says.
Brennan Lejune, a crawfish producer and wholesale business owner in Basile, La., says crawfish production in his area is about half of what it should be.
Lejune attributes the low crawfish catches to three continuous years of drought. “Crawfish can't digest dry dirt,” he says. “They need a lot of moisture in order to emerge from the soil into the water and then into the baited crawfish traps. Facing a lack of moisture, the crawfish burrow deeper into the ground and a lot of them probably don't make it back out because they are so stressed.”
Dexter Guillory of Eunice, La., who represents the crawfish industry on the Louisiana Seafood Promotion Board, agrees the dry weather conditions of the past few years have probably played a crucial role in the success or failure of this year's crawfish harvest.
“We've been farming crawfish in this area for 25 years and, up until a few years ago, we had good production numbers each year. Then, it totally turned around and the last three years have been bad for Louisiana's crawfish producers,” he says.
“I believe the reason for the drop in crawfish production is a combination of the drought we've been in and some type of natural cycle.”
Guillory says, “Our hope, and what we tell our bankers, is that if we can get into a normal or wet cycle, and get some rain this summer and fall, things will turn around. None of us wants to wish for a hurricane for south Louisiana, but hurricanes are very good for crawfish production. Hurricanes bring us additional rain and water and usually put us in a rainy cycle.”
Overall, Guillory says, reports from Louisiana crawfish producers on the 2001 harvest vary from very poor to better than average. “This year's crawfish harvest, for the most part, is a little better than last year, but not as good as in previous years.
“About 10 percent of our farmers are doing extremely well.
“Another 30 percent of farmers are reporting that their production volume is down, but their income is about average due to the high prices paid for crawfish this season. The remainder, about 60 percent of Louisiana's crawfish farmers, are harvesting almost nothing at all and are not covering their production expenses,” he says.
Another factor reportedly affecting Louisiana crawfish production is the use of the seed treatment, Icon, a pesticide used to control rice water weevils in rice production.
Studies by researchers at the Louisiana State University AgCenter say preliminary studies have shown a link between the pesticide and crawfish mortality.
However, due to the extreme dry weather conditions experienced by the region in the past few years, researchers are not exactly sure how much of the mortality is caused by Icon and how much is caused by drought.
In a 2000 LSU study of more than 90 commercial crawfish ponds, researchers were repeatedly told by farmers that in ponds where Icon-treated rice seed had been used the previous year, crawfish production was well below average.
Due to the suspected link between Icon and reduced crawfish production, Sonnier says he either puts his crawfish ponds on fallow ground or he uses Dimilin or Karate instead of Icon to control rice water weevils.
For farmers in south Louisiana who haven't yet given up on 2001 crawfish production, the time left to harvest is growing short.
“When you get into June, it gets to be 90 degrees, and whether you just started fishing or you've been fishing for six months, the crawfish know it's time to begin burying down into the ground for the summer,” says Guillory.