Saturday, March 26, 2011

Crawfish off to slow start, but lots of mudbugs

By Benjamin Alexander-Bloch

After an autumn and winter unsuited for mudbug growth, the cherished crustacean is in a moment of flux, as spring descends and the market begins to adjust itself to both added supply and demand.

Price has dropped nearly a dollar since early February with supply doubling, according to Louisiana crawfish farmers and New Orleans area buyers and sellers. But despite the recent uptick to an exceptionally slow start of the season, many farmers say they remain at about half the production compared to this time last year, and the fall drought and cold winter will tip the high-season forward to mid-April.

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"Has the catch gone up? Yes. Has the catch gone up to average? Not even close," said Steve Minvielle, head of the Louisiana Crawfish Farmers Association and the Louisiana Crawfish Promotion and Research Board.

A typical crawfish season peaks in March and April, but crawfish this year are anticipated to break through more in late April, May and June, possibly creating a season that extends much later than usual. The hope is that by Easter on April 24, the supply, price and size of crawfish will improve dramatically.

"It is a good bit behind from this time last year. Weather has been nice the last couple weeks and certainly catches are increasing but we aren't yet busting loose," said Robert Romaire, a Louisiana State University AgCenter professor who studies crawfish management.

"It's kind of going to get there, but for many producers they will probably never catch up in comparison to previous years."

Because crawfish were late in emerging from their burrows because of the drought, and then a cold winter further slowed growth, the critters are behind in their development, causing the supply to lag behind previous years.

Farmers expect many of their young crawfish to mature in the coming months, but fear an overly condensed season could lead to a sudden glut on the market, dropping price as supply rises above demand. Such would be very good news for consumers, but not so good news for those who catch and market mudbugs.

Wild crawfish expected in mid-April

Wild crawfish catch, mainly out of the Atchafalaya Basin, also is expected to begin hitting on all cylinders in mid-April, further flooding the market. In the past two years, wild catch has accounted for about 13 percent of Louisiana's harvest, or an additional 15 million to 17 million pounds, according to LSU AgCenter estimates.

But the season cannot be delayed indefinitely. While optimal water temperatures for crawfish growth are between 76 and 82 degrees, once you get into the low 90s, crawfish begin to die.

At the Louisiana Crawfish Festival, which runs Thursday night through Sunday in Chalmette, boiled crawfish are selling at $4 a pound, nearly a dollar higher than years past. Cisco Gonzales, the festival's chairman, fears the high price tag could drop sales by 10,000 to 15,000 pounds.

In past years, the four-day festival sold 35,000 to 40,000 pounds, but Gonzales anticipates moving only about 25,000 pounds this year.

Any way you like it

Sampling crustaceans at the festival goes far beyond boiled fare. There will be crawfish rolls, crawfish bread, crawfish cakes, crawfish pies, crawfish fried rice, crawfish quesadillas, crawfish jubilee, crawfish stuffed crab, fried crawfish tails, crawfish poboys, and much more.

With Lenten-season demand -- and Mardi Gras and St. Patrick's Day boils -- the price per pound appears to have taken longer to adjust to increased supply, some in the industry speculate.

Deanie's Seafood in Bucktown is selling live crawfish for $2.79 a pound at its retail store, boiled for $3.59.Chandra Chifici, a manager and owner at Deanie's, said that just after Mardi Gras the price for live crawfish had dropped to $2.59 and boiled was down to $3.39, but around St. Patrick's Day weekend, the demand was so high that the price jumped 20 cents a pound.

Fisherman's Cove Seafood market in Kenner raised its prices about 25 cents during that same period, now selling live crawfish for $2.80 a pound and boiled for $3.29 at the market.

Chester George, the manager of Fisherman's Cove, said supply currently is much lower than demand. And because of the low supply, George has decided to boil most of the crawfish in stock because that nets more profit than selling them live.

While Fisherman's Cove typically does a fair amount of out-of-state shipping, the market only has enough product to ship about 3 to 6 sacks a week. George said that, even with the current price, he could easily deliver 50 to 60 sacks if it were available.

More crawfish, bigger crawfish coming

All acknowledge that as the warm weather remains, the weekly supply of critters will continue to improve, as will the size. And, to the delight of consumers, the price will fall.
When weather warms, mudbugs move and eat more, which makes them grow faster. And as the sun continues to shine, outside boils become more desirable, and combined with price drops and larger crawdads, demand increases.

Yet as evident in Fisherman's Cove and Deanie's recent price increases, demand can buoy price when supply is short of demand.

Rouses, though, is expected to drop its crawfish price by nearly 50 cents a pound this weekend. Its seafood director, James Breuhl, said the crop is starting to come in more freely and supply is catching up with demand.

In fact, Breuhl said Rouses' anticipated new weekend $2.99 price tag for live crawfish will fall in line with the price this time last year. The price of boiled is anticipated at $3.50 a pound.

The drought last fall led to a high mortality rate in crawfish burrows, and high gas prices dissuaded many farmers from pumping the water needed to compensate. Crawfish typically require about three to four months to reach marketable size, and farmers and scientists say a cold winter further delayed that development.

The sudden change from cold to warm weather this year also has affected some crops, as vegetation in the crawfish ponds died and that in turn decreased oxygen in the water needed for healthy crawfish, according to Romaire, the LSU AgCenter professor.

Low oxygen levels can stress crawfish, he said, decreasing growth and increasing mortality. There are special pumping methods to increase oxygen in the ponds, but because of high gasoline prices, its now less cost-effective to run their diesel pumps.


What: Originated in 1975, the 36th annual Louisiana Crawfish Festival expects 100,000 patrons and is complete with at least 20 varieties of crawfish, a plethora of other food options, live music, rides, carnival game booths, a Ferris wheel, memorabilia, art and crafts and crawfish races, in which competitors try to jostle crawfish toward them by slapping a wood board. For the second year, the crawfish festival will host the Academy Sports and Outdoors HT Professional Redfish Series Championship. The top 10 catches will be weighed Saturday at 3 p.m.
Where: St. Bernard Government Complex & Frederick J. Sigur Civic Center, 8245 W. Judge Perez Drive, Chalmette

When: Friday: The festival starts at 6 p.m. with Kayla Woodson performing. And from 8 to 11 p.m., it's the Bucktown Allstars. Saturday: Begins at noon with Bobby Cure and the Summertime Blues. Then at 4 p.m., there's Groovy 7, followed by the band Bag of Donuts from 8 to 10 p.m. Sunday: The final day kicks off with the Jambalaya Cajun Band at noon, followed by Contraflow from 3 to 6 p.m., and then 5-Finger Discount from 7 to 10 p.m.

Food drive: As a part of Japan Relief Effort for the families in Japan affected by the recent earthquake and tsunami, festivalgoers are asked to bring pre-packed food, toiletries and other donations to an on-site U-Haul truck. The items will later be sent to Japan via military transport.

Additional information can be found by calling 504.329.6411, online at or on its Facebook page.


Sunday:26th Annual World Championship Crawfish Etouffee Cook-off, where cooks prepare the meal on-site and vie for the championship title, plus music and dancing. It's at the Northwest Pavilion, 651 Samuel Drive, Eunice, 337.457.7389

April 2: The Louisiana Crawfish Boil Championship, which is a crawfish-boiling competition that includes rides, music, "all you can sample" boiled crawfish and fixings from every team. It's at Immaculate Conception School, 601 Avenue C, Marrero, 504.388.4095

April 17: Hospice Foundation of the South Crawfish Cook-off is a crawfish-cooking competition with music and games, rock climbing, with teams boiling for the title "Best Crawfish in St Tammany Parish." It's located at Fritchie Park, 901 Howze Beach Road, Slidell, 985.643.5470

April 30: The Oilfield Crawfish Boil-Off in Buras features music and competitively boiled crawfish from more than 60 booths, sponsored by the Buras Volunteer Fire Department. It's held at Fort Jackson ballfield, Buras, 504.382.1519

May 6-8: Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival has cajun and zydeco music, crawfish races, crawfish-eating and -cooking contests, food, cooking demos, crafts and rides. It's at Parc Hardy, 2090 Rees Street, Breaux Bridge, 337.332.6655

May 28: The New Orleans String Project Crawfish Boil features food, games, crafts, a raffle, music and children's performances. Is located at Washington Square Park (corner Frenchmen and Royal streets), New Orleans, 504.931.3204

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