September 30, 2005

Louisiana ‘crawfish boils’ at risk from Rita

By Hilary Burke

ST. MARTINVILLE, Louisiana (Reuters) - Louisiana families
get together for crawfish boils instead of barbecues, scooping
tender tail meat from the small, lobster-like beasts and
sucking their heads for fats and juices.

But this Cajun tradition may be harder to honor after
Hurricane Rita cut local crawfish production by least in half,
researchers and industry leaders say.

That means fewer stews, salads and sauces made with the
freshwater crustacean, also known as crayfish or crawdad. And
it could mean bankruptcy for some crawfish farmers.

"We had a not-so-good season last year and if we don't have
crawfish this year, we'll be looking for work," said Jeff
Durand, 46, whose father started farming crawfish in the late

More than 80 percent of Louisiana's crop comes from about
1,300 commercial farms while the rest is fished "wild" in the
Atchafalaya River basin, about 30 miles west of Baton Rouge.

Hurricane Rita struck the Texas-Louisiana border on
September 24 with 120 mph (193 kph) winds. But east of the eye,
the storm pushed salty sea water miles inland and roiled
freshwater, killing fish and turning canals black.

Before Rita, some farmers had started flooding their
vegetation-filled ponds to encourage mother crawfish to emerge
from mud burrows with their young. But the crustaceans can't
survive in the dirty, salty water and plants can't grow.

"When mama comes out and sees the black water, she flips
the babies off her tail and tries to survive alone. The losses
to the young are nearly 100 percent," said Stephen Minvielle,
president of the Louisiana Crawfish Farmers Association.


Growth of rice, which is the most common vegetation used
for crawfish ponds, could be hampered for up to five years by
salty soils. Crawfish feed on insects and small animals like
snails that only inhabit ponds if the rice plants grow.

Louisiana produces between 40 million and 70 million pounds
of crawfish a year, valued at $40 million to $50 million, said
Greg Lutz, an aquaculture professor at Louisiana State

Lutz said Rita's impact could be upward of $100 million if
one considers the effect on bait producers, trap-makers and
others linked to farms and fishing.

"This industry has been ripped apart," said Minvielle, who
plans to seek federal disaster aid for farmers. "This could
very well put some people out of business, especially people
without insurance in the southern part of the state."

In southwestern and south-central Louisiana where the storm
flooded crawfish ponds with saltwater, losses are estimated at
100 percent, Minvielle said.

Louisiana crawfish is mostly eaten locally but also is sold
in Texas, Arkansas and southeastern states as Cajun cuisine
spreads. Louisiana produces virtually the entire U.S. crop, but
the crustaceans are also farmed in China and Spain.

Unlike with other crops, crawfish damage is hard to assess
because it is impossible to know if the critters burrowed
beneath the surface are still alive.

Durand said if the crawfish crop is destroyed this year, he
and his three brothers may look for work in the construction
industry -- or hurricane relief.

"We would have to find some more work to support our
families," Durand said.