NEW ORLEANS (AP) — People planning Super Bowl crawfish boils may be out of luck. Farmers say cold has kept crawfish scarce all winter, and now many ponds are iced over.
The prolonged cold also means crawfish aren't eating and are likely to be smaller than normal at the peak of crawfish season, said farmer David Savoy of Church Point.
People may have to order ahead even at the peak of the season, said Craig Lutz, an LSU AgCenter professor and aquaculture specialist.
"I think it's fair to say that when we get to Mardi Gras and we get to Easter, we're definitely going to be behind what we would be in a normal season. There'll still be crawfish available. But I think people are going to have to plan a lot better to make sure they have crawfish on those weekends when they want them," he said Wednesday.
AgCenter aquaculture and crawfish specialist Mark Shirley was optimistic about the spring and summer harvest but said the supply is going to be short for Super Bowl, a weekend when there's high demand.
Savoy, who has farmed crawfish for 40 years, said it's the slowest start he's ever seen to the season. He said he's never seen such a run of mornings below 35 degrees and afternoons less than 70 degrees.
Louisiana Crawfish Promotion and Research Board director Stephen Minvielle said ponds in St. Landry Parish have up to an inch of ice, with one-third to one-half inch on ponds in New Iberia.
Minvielle said he's worried about this year's babies, hatched in the autumn.
"This time of year that young crop is probably the size of a pencil eraser. Like puppies, kittens and calves, baby crawfish are more delicate" than adults, he said.
Still, they should all survive, Lutz said. "We've done some studies — nothing rigorous enough to publish in a scientific journal, but we've looked at the cold tolerance of hatchlings."
The cold wouldn't kill even newly hatched babies, he said. "The only way they would die is if they were in very, very, very shallow water and literally got frozen into the ice," Lutz said.
Their growth is behind in areas where rain was sparse in September and October, he said, while better rainfall got female crawfish out of their burrows and into the water where the hatchlings could find food.
But when the water temperature is below 50 degrees, crawfish stay dormant under dead plants at the bottom of the ponds rather than swimming about to look for food.
"Every week we have where the water temperature is below 50 degrees is a week longer before they get to market size," Lutz said.
Water temperature can't be predicted by the air temperature, Lutz said — shallower ponds warm up faster; ponds warm more slowly under cloudy skies. Minvielle said he broke the ice and got a thermometer to the bottom of his 88-acre pond; the water there was 40 degrees.
Both farmers were worried about the rice they planted as crawfish fodder. All growth above the waterline froze and will break off, they said.
"You end up with a bunch of broken-off stubble lying on the bottom that should have been your feed later on," Savoy said.
Lutz said that a week or two ago, crawfish were so scarce that farmers were getting $3.50 a pound. That's more than double the price farmers were getting before the 2013 Super Bowl, when the early season was the best in at least three years.
"Even at that price most of our farmers were losing money if they tried to fish their ponds," he said. "You're still using the same amount of gasoline; you're still using the same amount of bait. And because the waters are so cold you may get only two or three or four crawfish in a trap."