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.
Two Lafayette men have been revealed by police as the infamous duo behind a caper that shook our fair city to its core.
The Lafayette Parish School Board has received a second letter of demand related to last year’s insurance debacle, this time from Key Benefit Administrators claiming it’s owed $93,000 from the school system.
The Louisiana coastline is vanishing faster than mappers can keep track.
A bill that would have overridden local ordinances prohibiting public and private employers from discriminating against lesbian, gay and transgender people has been pulled within less than a week of being filed.
The panel that selects nominees for a controversial New Orleans area flood control board — a board that is suing more than 90 oil, gas and pipeline companies — is set to discuss legislation affecting its independence.
State prison officials cannot keep secret the seller and manufacturer of the two drugs purchased for executions at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
State lawmakers will not appeal a judge's ruling that it was improper to use $3.7 million from a probation and parole officers' retirement fund to balance the state's operating budget.
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Thursday, March 06, 2014:
Conservatives have been losing their minds over this satirical bit on the Colbert Report.
The Lafayette Parish School Board leaves a lot to be desired, but is scrapping the election process in favor of an appointed board the answer?
The House approved legislation Tuesday night to roll back a recently enacted overhaul of the federal flood insurance program, after homeowners in flood-prone areas complained about sharp premium increases.
The NFL has formally designated New Orleans' Jimmy Graham as a tight end for the purposes of his franchise tag value, which is now set at $7.05 million next season unless Graham and the Saints subsequently agree on a long-term deal.
A federal appeals panel ruled Monday that businesses don't have to prove that they were directly harmed by BP's 2010 Gulf Of Mexico oil spill to collect settlement payments.
The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development has closed Interstate 10 from I-49 in Lafayette to Seigen Lane in Baton Rouge.
Jim Bernhard, who engineered the sale of The Shaw Group for $3 billion, recently has told several people involved in Democratic politics that he intends to run for governor in 2015.
A New Orleans levee board wants to hold the oil and gas industry accountable for decades of damage to our state’s coastline, but the Legislature may be poised to put the kibosh on the suit.
New standards curb elective induction
CVS stops tobacco sales
If an Acadia Parish fiddler misses a note while swatting a fly, will a St. Martinville accordionist learn “Ma ‘Tite Fille”?
(It's good, it's bad and it's just crazy)
Can state lawmakers find the nerve — and the votes — to neuter payday lenders?
A calm demeanor has served Gerald Boudreaux well — in his career, passion for sports and in life. And it could be just what his district needs in the state Senate.
Acadiana Catholics* react to Francis
The circumstances surrounding the Jan. 26 fire of the 18,000-square-foot home on Verot School Road seemed strange, but what's even more bizarre is the back-story behind owner Ralph Wadleigh.
Choice cuts from Acadiana's news media for Friday, Feb. 28, 2014: