Mudbug Math: As peak crawfish season nears, supply and demand follow an annual rhythm _lowres

Photo provided by Paragon Casino Resort crawfish

For crawfish lovers in south Louisiana, the arrival of Good Friday and Easter weekend is also the unofficial but highly-anticipated signal that the highpoint for mudbugs is upon us. And so, as crawfish lovers and crawfish suppliers ready themselves for the frenzy of activity to come, pricing and abundance is a centerpoint of conversation wherever crawfish are harvested, sold and devoured.

But while this conversation crops up annually, the dynamics of supply and demand for crawfish are tied to a rhythm that plays out along the same pattern each year as the high prices and small crawfish of the first quarter transition to the larger, more affordable crawfish found April through June.

That’s one reason why veterans of the crawfish game are unfazed by the high prices that held sway early this year.

“What’s happening now is not at all a metric for what the year’s going to be. We have water, and we know it’s going to get hot,” said Jason Duhe, proprietor of the LaPlace-based caterer and crawfish specialist Duhe’s Cajun & Creole Cravin’s.

Early in the season, chilly waters in Louisiana keep cold-blooded crawfish largely inactive. When they’re not moving or feeding much in winter weather, they aren’t available for harvesting and that reduces supply and contributes to the higher prices. Once this year’s healthy seedling stocks get a dose of the warm, wet weather that inevitably envelopes southeast Louisiana each year, crawfish will become bountiful.

Until this happens, though, crawfish stocks are largely dependent upon the supplies that can mature in cold, fairly dry winter weather and that translates to higher prices for consumers.

“There’s a great equilibrium across the whole segment — from the farmers to the distributors to the restaurants to the end user — because if price were low right now, the supply is not there for the demand that would be,” said Duhe. “If we had $3.50 (per pound) end user price, there’s no way we’d have enough supply to keep up.”

While high prices keep some consumers away, demand is still strong relative to the supply available. Some people will pay whatever is charged for crawfish. Donald Barkemeyer is an avid crawfish boiler, both personally on his time and on the job for his catering gigs and while overseeing the boiling pots at Castnet Seafood in New Orleans East. Even at this time of year, Barkemeyer is boiling crawfish every weekend. Since it’s a highly seasonal item, he said, “We have to take advantage of them while we have them,” and he’s willing to pay any price he needs to for crawfish.

High prices and limited supplies don’t impede the crawfish festivals that begin to fill the calendar early in the spring. For instance, the Louisiana Crawfish Festival, held last weekend at the Frederick J. Sigur Civic Center in Chalmette, drew thousands of people to consumer many tons of boiled crawfish, not including the variety of prepared crawfish dishes offered at the festival.

Pricing relief is in sight, however. The LSU AgCenter is optimistic about this year’s overall crawfish stock.

“Right now, it looks like we should have a sufficient supply of crawfish on into springtime. It’s just right now during Lent when we want a lot of them, it’s a little bit in short supply,” LSU AgCenter/Sea Grant agent Mark Shirley advised in a March press release.

Early in the year, the only crawfish available are grown in ponds, namely those that served as rice fields the year before. According to the LSU AgCenter, Louisiana has 180,000 acres of crawfish ponds in production. In 2014, those ponds yielded nearly 102 million pounds of crawfish. Once the water warmed in the wild harvesting areas, namely the Atchafalaya Basin, a second boost yielded an additional 6.5 million pounds.

The annual pattern means that farmed crawfish from ponds start the season while the wild crawfish help ensure a steady supply as the spring unfolds. As the warmer weather brings oxygenating rain, crawfish across the state begin to feed and grow. As the season progresses, the pond-raised crawfish stock peaks and the wild crawfish — encouraged by freshwater snowmelt moving down the rivers and bayous — come into their prime.

Local crawfish fanatics like Mike Azzarello look forward to spring, not only for the lower prices but also, like the crawfish, for the warmer weather.

“High prices have slowed me down somewhat, but the other major factor is the weather,” Azzarello said. “I just don’t like boiling in cold weather. It’s just not as much fun. I like to boil the most in March, April and May.”

Warmer weather provides larger crawfish and more opportunities for groups and families to gather over longer, more relaxed weekend boils which form the backbone of a cherished Louisiana tradition.

Addie K. Martin and Jeremy Martin are co-authors of the book “Southeast Louisiana Food: A Seasoned Tradition” and write the experiential travel blog culturecurious.net.