It's the first full week of Lent, and in heavily Catholic South Louisiana, that means big business for the seafood industry. And when it comes to Louisiana seafood, crawfish is king.
Unfortunately, a number of factors have contributed to a slow start to the 2019 crawfish season.
The Lenten fish fry is a tradition that spans many communities and is robustly upheld around the New Orleans area.
Scott Broussard, owner of Acadia Crawfish Co. in Crowley, said he believes constant rainfall in August and September caused the crawfish to come out of the ground early and start laying eggs before farmers were ready to flood their fields. Coupled with late cold snaps, the mudbugs aren't cooperating right now.
"It's been a lot slower start than last year," Broussard said. "Production is quite a ways behind. We're optimistic that production will pick up, but Mother Nature has not been very friendly to us this year."
Conditions are similar to 2014, which was another slow year for crawfish, according to Michael Fruge with Cajun Crawfish and Fruge Aquafarms in Branch. But, he added, a slow start is not uncommon and, as in other crops, there's a cycle to crawfish farming. Beause crawfish are completely driven by water temperature, he said, there should be another hit this week in response to the Mardi Gras cold snap. Eventually, he expects production to level out again.
"There's a shortage and prices are high," Fruge said. "If it warms up, the crawfish should start reproducing and growing faster. Hopefully, by the middle of the month we'll have that happen and the catch will return to normal and prices will drop back to normal."
Louisiana leads the nation in crawfish production with an annual yield of more than 100 million pounds, according to the LSU AgCenter. The total economic contribution to the Louisiana economy can exceed $300 million annually, with more than 7,000 people depending directly or indirectly on the crawfish industry, according to the Louisiana Crawfish Promotion and Research Board.
Most crawfish are harvested between December and June, but March, April and May are the peak months when Louisiana supplies are greatest and quality is best.
The seafood platter is the dad joke of Lenten eating.
Back in January, Greg Lutz, a professor at the LSU AgCenter's Aquaculture Research Station in Baton Rouge, predicted the cold would knock back the harvest, but not kill off this year's crop of crawfish. Now that March has rolled around, that slowdown is being felt in all sectors of the crawfish industry and in consumers' pocket books, leading to prices as high as $9 a pound in some restaurants in Acadiana.
Another factor in a profitable season is getting enough workers to process the crawfish during peak harvesting months.
Like other seafood industries, crawfish processors rely on foreign guest workers to staff plants. However, federal limits on H-2B visas for temporary immigrant laborers and a tightening U.S. job market have left many employers uncertain if they’ll have enough workers.
The next round of H-2B visas won't go into effect until April 1, and crawfish processors are competing with other businesses in the forestry, landscaping and seafood industries nationwide to get their lot of the 33,000 visas available for the first half of the year.
Before applying for foreign guest-worker visas, businesses must prove they’ve made efforts to hire local workers. Louisiana employers who rely on the visas say local workers aren’t eager for the positions, which usually pay above minimum wage but don’t offer steady year-round work. Hiring local has become even tougher as unemployment has dropped to the lowest levels since 2000.
Frank Randol, owner of Randol's restaurant and its seafood processing business, said more than 100,000 people applied for H-2B visas to hire immigrant workers and it crashed the Department of Labor's system on Jan. 1. He said he was lucky this year and was able to get 25 work visas for the first time since 2014.
"The first day I can bring them in to work is April 1," Randol said. "Every year it's grown and there's more demand for a set amount of visas. Added to that we've got high demand, but low supply, so prices are going to be up right now. Add to that people are trying to break even for past years where they took a loss and prices are going to be up."
The higher prices and relatively slow start to the crawfish season don't seem to be dampening consumer demand, however.
On the restaurant side, Randol said, business is good. They are getting good crawfish on the table, he said, and demand is so high that their happy hour from is filling up the restaurant and covering costs for a whole shift.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Louisiana leads the nation in crawfish production, not the world. China is now the top producer.
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