Durel Romaine started harvesting crawfish in December, and so far the catch has been dismal. His ponds near Kaplan, La., have been affected by drought and saltwater intrusion.
“It’s probably one of the worst starts I’ve seen,” Romaine said. “The buyers I am talking to say they are buying about a third of the crop they bought last year, and last year was one of their worst years ever, so the drought has really affected the crawfish industry this year.”
Much of Louisiana experienced hot and dry weather throughout summer and fall, which led to low crawfish reproduction and survival.
Salt water has been a recent problem for farmers in southwest Louisiana. The Leland Bowman locks in Intracoastal City, La., were hit by a barge in September and are allowing salt water to flow into the basin. Leaks along levees and canal banks also let salt water leach into canals and streams.
Both issues have been further complicated by drought, according to Mark Shirley, LSU AgCenter coastal area agent in Vermilion Parish, La.
“With the lack of rain the last couple of years, the water level has been lower,” Shirley said. “And with higher tides, it’s just been pumping salt water into the Mermentau Basin, causing salinity levels to rise.”
Some producers didn’t flood their crawfish ponds, and others were not able to use as much water as they would have liked, he said.
The scarce early catch made it difficult to justify the effort of harvesting.
“What we are catching barely covers the cost of bait and labor,” Romaine said.
Crawfish that did survive the summer and fall were slow to emerge from their burrows, according to LSU AgCenter aquaculture specialist Robert Romaire. He said rain and warm weather in January prompted emergence and growth.
In other parts of Louisiana, crawfish farmers are optimistic that the harvest will improve as demand picks up in the spring.
“This point forward, reports that we’re getting from producers out there is that they are starting to see crawfish, and the catch is picking up,” Romaire said.
Crawfish rely on warming waters for growth and development. The warm January has helped the crawfish increase in size.
“The growth rates have actually been much higher than we would typically expect in January,” Romaire said. “So we got a late start to the season, but we are starting to do a lot of catching up at this point.”
One unknown this year is the wild harvest from the Atchafalaya Basin. Romaire said floods last spring helped to wash out and freshen the basin, which could have a positive effect on production. But the flood waters stayed in some areas for a long time.
“What this does is decrease the area where crawfish can burrow and reproduce, but it also increases fish predation on crawfish,” he explained.
The basin harvest typically begins later than pond-raised crawfish.
Production costs are up, experts say. Because of the drought, farmers must use more fuel to pump water onto their ponds. The cost of baits also is up because of the increased costs of grain used in them.
LSU AgCenter researchers are working on manufactured baits that could withstand colder temperatures, helping decrease the cost.
“We have some formulated baits that are very effective in warm water, but we still rely on fish baits in the colder months of the year, which is expensive,” Romaire said.