Crawfish are beginning to show up on the market, but the size is small to medium ' not what locals prefer when they go out to eat.
Choate operates as a broker, buying crawfish for Cajun Claws and selling the surplus to other restaurants. Typically he buys from fishermen whose ponds are located around Henry, Mouton Cove and Forked Island, all spots hard hit by Rita's storm surge. Ted Noel, one of Choate's suppliers, has 200 acres of ponds in Perry, south of Abbeville. About 30 percent of his ponds had some degree of inundation from Rita, although Noel says it didn't result in a high degree of salinity. Nevertheless, his ponds aren't producing normally.
"Things have been kind of mysterious since the storm," he says. "We had great indicators that this would be a good season, but we haven't been catching."
Historically, there was a short crawfish season in November, then harvesting began in earnest in January. Noel was in the processing business for 10 years until 1992, before he began farming himself. "In those years [when he was processing], I could count on opening on November 15." Once he began farming, he says his ponds routinely began producing in late December for the January season. "Now, things seem to be two months or more behind," he says. "We're going into February, and the catch is not strong. It's barely worth fishing. If it weren't for the high restaurant price, it wouldn't be worth fishing."
Restaurants pay significantly higher than processors because they are looking for a superior product to put on the table. Wholesalers may pay $1 per pound for a sack of crawfish, but restaurants that want select crawfish are likely to pay double that price, which helps farmers struggling to meet costs for labor, bait and freshwater pond pumping during dry spells.
Choate hand-selects his crawfish and is quick to differentiate between big crawfish and select crawfish. The difference, he says, is quality, which does not necessarily mean only size. "There's no count on it, like with shrimp." Shrimp is graded by size and weight; the fewer shrimp per pound, the bigger the shrimp. For example, a 10-15 count signifies jumbo shrimp, while there's no such grade for crawfish, which are eyeballed as small, medium or big. "What you're looking for is the cleanness and the softness of the shell. A big young crawfish is tender. It's got a lot of fat, and it's better quality," Choate says. "If they're black and stained up, I don't put them on the dinner table."
Abbeville-based LSU Ag Center aquacultural specialist Mark Shirley says the January rains will produce a flood of crawfish by high season, March and April, as the water warms up. Hurricane Rita affected about 5,000 out of 100,000 acres of ponds in Louisiana. "Some of these ponds are recovering and will produce a limited amount of crawfish this year," Shirley predicts. "The rain has helped flush out the residual salt. Conditions are more favorable for rice [a companion crop with crawfish], as well."
But Noel isn't convinced. Seventy percent of his ponds weren't flooded by Rita, and he isn't seeing crawfish in those ponds either. "We used to think we were right on cycle. Since the storm, none of that is seemingly the same. We're scratching our heads." Last year, in the season following Rita, Noel's ponds didn't produce until after February. "After Easter, there were no big crawfish, just little babies. Our catch fell to a quarter of what it was before Easter, and made it not worth fishing."
Normally once high temperatures set in June, the crawfish dig into the mud and hold over until October, a cycle Noel says is called "recruitment." Last year, the crawfish started burrowing in April. "So many burrowed in that we thought, man, it's going to be gangbusters [this year]," Noel remembers.
In the summer, crawfish farmers plant rice in their paddies as food for their crawfish crop. Fields are flooded lightly in September and October. The water draws the crawfish out of the ground, and they breed. This October, Noel says he saw a lot of holes and chimneys open up as his recruitment came out to breed. That was the indicator LSU has used as a predictor for a good crawfish crop. Another indicator is muddy water in January, a sign of activity. "My water looks like chocolate milk," Noel says, "but there aren't many crawfish."
Noel speculates that his recruitment struggled with the salt residue, making them less fertile. The long cold wet spells of December and January might also be contributing to the dearth of crawfish. And Noel says he is still seeing fresh holes right now, meaning crawfish are just emerging to breed. "We thought it was going to continue year after year. After the storm, it's different. Is it the storm? Is it global warming?" he wonders.
The entire industry is hoping that the season will catch up by March and there will be enough crawfish to meet springtime demand. Meanwhile, farmers and restaurateurs are anxiously watching the weather. "We're missing sunshine in this recipe," concludes Dwight Breaux.
School board members Mark Babineaux, Hunter Beasley and Tehmi Chassion can vote to fire Cooper — because we all know that’s exactly what they’ll do.
District 2 school board candidate Simon Mahan is hoping to unseat first-term incumbent and former Carencro Mayor Tommy Angelle in the Nov. 4 election.
District Attorney Mike Harson is showing his desperation by falsely attributing quotes to his opponent and blocking journalists from his social media.
The governor is traveling the country laying the groundwork for a possible 2016 presidential campaign, but his approval ratings at home hover well below 50 percent.
State District Judge Bob Downing extended the order and delayed a planned Wednesday hearing about a permanent injunction while negotiations continue between Attorney General Buddy Caldwell and the waste disposal site operator.
New Louisiana higher education commissioner Joseph Rallo will be paid more than his predecessor.
Elijah McGuire and Alonzo Harris each had four rushing touchdowns, and Louisiana-Lafayette rolled to 419 yards on the ground in a 55-40 victory over Arkansas State on Tuesday night.
Bill and Hillary Clinton are the validators-in-chief for Democrats struggling through a bleak campaign season in states where President Barack Obama is deeply unpopular.
President Barack Obama is turning to black radio listeners to plead for midterm votes, a targeted approach to drum up Democratic support at a time when many candidates don't want him around in person.
WaPo Watergate editor Ben Bradlee dies; Clintons stump for Dems; Liberians stranded and more national and international news for Wednesday, October 22, 2014.
Wednesday's Blogs from the Bog!
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Landrieu, who is fighting to keep her seat for a fourth term, said that Ebola is serious and precautions should be taken, but she accused Republicans of using the virus outbreak in West Africa to "create fear" here at home.
Law enforcement agencies are participating in a "Louisiana Heroin Summit," designed to address the recent rise in heroin use and drug-related deaths around the state.
State education officials are preparing to release performance scores for public schools and public school districts.
Saints coach Sean Payton is starting a new week by emphasizing, repeatedly, the many good things he noticed during New Orleans' latest loss.
We will be offering our recommendations on the constitutional amendments tomorrow.
The justices did not comment in leaving in place lower court rulings that dismissed the lawsuits against BP and other companies involved in the worst U.S. offshore oil spill.
White registration is down by 7,700 voters while black registration has shot up by 7,100 voters.
Even though it had been rumored for months, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu finally pulled the trigger recently on a major campaign shakeup that moved control over to a few Big Easy insiders.
Louisiana's health department says it will seek law changes to stop billing sexual assault victims for exams and tests.
It wasn’t the historic slashes to higher ed funding or the ensuing tuition spikes that recently had LSU’s student body and faculty riled up in collective outrage.
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Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said Friday he expects his playing status in Detroit to be decided by coach Sean Payton on Sunday, shortly before the game.
Lawmakers have sidestepped a decision on whether they accept claims from Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration that the state closed last year's books with a nearly $179 million surplus.