Low water levels in much of the Atchafalaya Basin are putting a significant dent in Louisiana's wild crawfish harvest this season, scientists at the LSU AgCenter say, but that's not necessarily bad news for consumers still hungry for more mudbugs.

The disappointing catch in the basin means at least some owners of commercial crawfish ponds will keep fishing a little longer than usual this spring, said LSU AgCenter aquaculture specialist Charles G. “Greg” Lutz.

“The immediate outlook is that we should see availability of (pond-raised) crawfish into early June or even mid-June,” said Lutz.

Mitch Olivier, who farms 350 acres of crawfish ponds near Plaisance, La., says he's among those who will keep producing.

“Demand still seems to be real good,” said Olivier, who has been crawfish farming for three years. “We're hoping to fish for several more weeks. We're going to pump water and keep (the ponds) fresh.”

Traditionally, the wild harvest from the Atchafalaya Basin kicks in after Easter, prices drop and most crawfish farmers drain their ponds and call it quits for the year. But this year it looks like some pond owners will keep fishing a few more weeks because they won't have to compete with a big volume of wild crawfish from the basin, Lutz said.

While it's hard to project prices, a weak catch in the basin would tend to keep prices paid to pond owners for medium-sized to larger crawfish steady between 50 cents to 75 cents a pound, brokers and farmers familiar with the current market estimate.

And what about the cost of your next crawfish boil? Well, consumers aren't likely to see crawfish prices plummet as traditionally happens after Easter.

Tony's Seafood, a well-known seafood retailer on Plank Road in Baton Rouge, was charging $1.09 a pound for live crawfish April 23-10 cents less than the previous week.

Bill Pizzolato, Tony's Seafood owner, said he's keeping a close watch on water levels in the basin. If wild crawfish hauls remain relatively weak, he said, retail prices probably won't drop much more.

One crawfish processor in St. Martinville, La., noted that the Atchafalaya River at Butte La Rose was 8.6 feet at midday April 23, well below normal levels of 12 feet to 15 feet for this time of year.

“Earlier this year, I was buying 250 sacks a day out of the basin,” said St. Martinville crawfish processor Terry Guidry, a member of the state's Crawfish Promotion and Research Board. “Today, we're buying 100 sacks a day, and size is not real good.”

The bad news out of the basin comes after a stunning spring for pond-raised crawfish, which were helped by decent rains last summer and more wet stuff from tropical storms in the fall.

Summer rains are responsible for keeping underground crawfish burrows damp or saturated with water, which is necessary for the crawfish's survival.

The Louisiana crawfish industry relies heavily on farm-raised crawfish, which often are raised in conjunction with rice in southwestern Louisiana. Last year, LSU AgCenter estimates show, 1,135 producers raised 60.5 million pounds of crawfish in ponds, compared to a wild harvest of just 14 million pounds.

That pond-raised total was the best since 1990, when 61.1 million pounds of crawfish were produced on farms, according to statistics compiled by the LSU AgCenter.

Robert Romaire, director of the LSU AgCenter Aquaculture Research Station, expects farm-raised crawfish numbers for 2003 to at least match last year's total. But several experts said the wild harvest this year could fall a little short of 2002, although it will be several more months before final estimates are known.

Last year's pond-raised and wild harvest numbers were both up substantially from 2000 and 2001 — two years when a severe drought devastated the industry.


Randy McClain writes for the LSU AgCenter (337-788-8821 or ramcclain@agcenter.lsu.edu.