Crawfish season appears stuck in the (dry) mud. This year’s crawfish harvest is looking scarce, according to aquaculture experts, and Dallas seafood restaurants are preparing.
The drop in crawfish numbers can mostly be blamed on a lack of rain and too much heat. Louisiana is the No. 1 producer of crawfish in the country, supplying 100 to 120 million pounds per year. Those crawfish farms usually consist of swamps and patties that offer the mudbugs plenty of room to burrow. When there’s little rain, there are few options for crawfish to, burrow, mate, and grow when it gets too hot or too cold.
Mark Shirley, crawfish aquaculture and coastal resources specialist at the LSU AgCenter and LA Sea Grant, penned an open letter last month in the Livingston Parish News detailing the grim upcoming season.
“The drought and heat during the summer and fall caused very high mortality of the carryover crawfish and brood stock,” he writes. “Those are the crawfish that the farmers should be catching in December, January, and February. I don’t see the catch picking anytime soon, especially considering the freezing temperatures expected thru [sic] January. Some farmers still have not put out traps mainly because test traps show no sign of crawfish.”
It’s too early to see how the Louisiana season will affect Texas’ crawfish season, but Dallas restaurants are already being hit with higher-than-usual prices for crawfish.
Martin Doan, who runs Killer Crab in Mesquite and Crab Stations throughout North Texas, says he typically receives fresh crawfish before Christmas. It’s now February, and he hasn’t been able to get any this year because of the low harvest yields. His restaurants have been using frozen crawfish, which they use when crawfish is not in season, but it looks as if he may have to continue thawing them out for the next few weeks.
Doan says he’s been quoted upwards of $10.75 a pound for a bag of fresh crawfish from his suppliers, up from last year’s $6 to $7 a pound. About a third of the crawfish is dead, Doan says, so costs are even higher.
“The crawfish aren’t that healthy right now,” Doan says. “We’re not going to try to sell crawfish at $14 or $15 a pound.”
The season isn’t a complete loss. Shirley wrote in his open letter that while he noticed low yields of adult crawfish and slow growth, better harvests could come in late March or April. Populations will be small, though.
“The catch may pick up for a short while in April and May but will not be sustainable for the entire spring,” Shirley writes. “The spring crop will be a fraction of what is normally caught.”
Doan says he normally starts profiting off crawfish in February when the season starts, with major bumps in profit following in March, April, and May. If Shirley’s outlook is correct, harvests will bring in some live crawfish for Dallas restaurants.
“I never imagined the prices [of crawfish] would be this high,” he says. “Prices have not budged on live crawfish. If it comes down to like, seven or eight dollars, we’ll carry to break even and sell it to customers so we can keep our customers happy.”
Raul Reyes of Crab Pot Boil House and Oyster Bar has been looking forward to crawfish season for months. It’s his first year operating the restaurant. But like most restaurant owners, he’ll have to delay his excitement a little longer.
Reyes says his Louisiana supplier has told him to wait a few weeks for better crawfish. Right now, the crawfish are too small to sell and his supplier has told him the price of crawfish per pound is double what it normally is.
“There’s no way to make a profit,” he says. “A lot of customers have been asking me about the crawfish. So I was thinking of [asking my] supplier, and she told me, ‘No, it’s not worth it for you.'”
Reyes and Doan both say that while crawfish season sorts itself out, they plan to lean on crab and shrimp for this year’s seafood boils. Crab Pot has plenty of crab in addition to shrimp cocktails and fun drinks in jelly jars. Doan says crab and shrimp at his restaurants are consistent sellers all year.
He also hopes this will give customers a chance to try out other menu items, such as gumbo and fresh oysters, which are in abundance at Crab Station and Killer Crab.
“We’re marketing more of our shrimp and crabs, because prices are lower,” Doan says. “For seafood restaurants, especially ours that are so heavily dependent on seafood boils, this is the time of the year that we actually make money. So right now, it’s thrown us for a loop because no one was really expecting it.”