Crawfish farmers who rely on the Vermilion River to flood and drain their fields are only just now discovering the impact hurricanes Laura and Delta had on their crops.

Philip Emanuel, who farms on about 45 acres in Breaux Bridge, stopped trapping last month after catching only enough crawfish to fill half a sack during his first run of the season.

It's not worth his time or effort to trap so few crawfish, which are worth about $100 instead of the $1,000 he would normally make per day early in the season when supply is low and demand is great.

"At this point, we're barely covering expenses," Emanuel said. "It's turning it into a hobby. And I don't do this as a hobby. I do this for a living."

It's still too soon to know the real impact the back-to-back hurricanes will have on crawfish farmers like Emanuel, who fears low levels of oxygen in the Vermilion River killed the bulk of the crawfish — and eggs — in his ponds.

Hurricanes Laura and Delta caused fish kills in bayous across much of Louisiana because of oxygen shortages in the waterways. Debris from major storms depletes oxygen levels in waterways as leaves, branches and other organic matter decompose.

When major storms happen within weeks of each other so close to crawfish season, it can devastate a farmer's crop.

"It'll be much later in the season before we know the true effect," said Mark Shirley, a crawfish specialist with the LSU AgCenter. "Unlike rice or beans or cows that you can see and you can count, crawfish are in the ground. They're underwater. You don't see the crop until you finally pick up a trap. That's the nature of the crop, and that means you really have no idea just how good or how bad it's going to be."

Rudy Dupuis, another crawfish farmer in Breaux Bridge, said he's bracing for another season like the one that followed the south Louisiana flood of August 2016. 

"I think unless something really changes, things will be pretty much exactly like that," Dupuis said. "That's the worst I've ever seen, and I've been farming out here pretty much all my life."

Like Emanuel, Dupuis relies on the Vermilion to pump water into and drain water from his ponds during crawfish season.

Storm surge and rainfall from the hurricanes, which hit late in the season, caused the banks of the Vermilion to swell to the flood stage, preventing freshwater from the Atchafalaya Basin from being pumped into the Vermilion River.

"It's that Atchafalaya water that is so good," said Steven Fournet, a geologist whose family works in crawfish farming. "It's that oxygen-rich, nutrient-rich water that just wasn't here for six weeks. Our water was black. It was just awful."

Crawfish need at least 2 milligrams of dissolved oxygen per liter of water to survive, according to Shirley.

The level in the Vermilion River measured close to zero for about three weeks following Hurricane Laura, recovering for about a week before Hurricane Delta made landfall and depleted oxygen for another three weeks.

Nearly half of Louisiana's crawfish ponds are flooded through freshwater rivers like the Vermilion, but just 10,000 to 15,000 acres out of the state's 250,000 acres were damaged by the hurricanes, according to the LSU AgCenter.

The hurricanes' impact won't likely affect crawfish availability or pricing for consumers, Shirley said, but it could substantially impact some farmers.

"If your farm happens to be in lower Vermilion or Iberia or St. Martin Parish, it's a significant impact to you," Shirley said. "But look at the industry as a whole, and it's just a small percentage of the crop."


Email Megan Wyatt at mwyatt@theadvocate.com.