Overall, crawfish ponds made it through Hurricane Laura better than many other Louisiana crops. 

About 5,000 to 10,000 acres of crawfish ponds were directly damaged by storm surge out of about 250,000 acres of ponds across the state, according to Mark Shirley, a crawfish specialist at the LSU AgCenter.

"It's a pretty small amount," Shirley said. "But it's a serious impact if those are your ponds."

There's another problem Hurricane Laura has presented for crawfish farmers who aren't located along the coast — an oxygen shortage in the waterways.

Low oxygen levels could threaten crawfish in the coming days and weeks in the same way it's caused fish kills in bayous across much of the northeastern, middle and southwestern regions of the state. About 40% to 50% of Louisiana's crawfish ponds are flooded through freshwater from rivers, Shirley said. 

Philip Emanuel is one of those farmers who relies on the Vermilion River for his crawfish ponds in the Breaux Bridge area.

"We would normally be pumping right now," Emanuel said. "But the water is not healthy."

Crawfish need at least 2 milligrams of dissolved oxygen per liter of water, according to Shirley. The level in the Vermilion River has measured close to zero since Hurricane Laura made landfall last month. Although the dissolved oxygen in the Vermilion has slowly increased this week, it's remained below 2 milligrams per liter.

After a major storm, debris depletes oxygen levels in Louisiana waterways as leaves, branches and other organic matter decompose. This time around, it's taken longer than usual for the oxygen levels to increase.

"It's something to be concerned about," Shirley said. "But with good pond management, farmers can deal with it."

Shirley said his team encourages crawfish farmers test the water and aerate it while pumping into their ponds. Should a farmer flood a pond using water with a low dissolved oxygen level, the crawfish could die, especially the more vulnerable babies that will be harvested in the spring.

Louisiana crawfish farmers face an estimated $2.7 million worth of revenue loss because of the storm, according to a preliminary study by the LSU AgCenter

The post-storm stall has been the second hit for Emanuel, who had to sell crawfish for half the normal price in the spring due to a drastic drop in demand as coronavirus restrictions shut down restaurant dining rooms and prohibited large gatherings.

Emanuel typically begins harvesting crawfish on Nov. 1, when prices are at their highest of the season. If he has to wait much longer to pump water into his ponds, he won't be able to do that, he said.

"Water is the lifeblood for aquaculture farming," Emanuel said. "We rely upon the Vermilion, and we have a lot of respect for the Vermilion. I have a lot of faith in the river to heal itself."

Acadiana Business Today: Hurricane Laura's 'serious impact' on Louisiana crawfish farms: Pond damage, lost revenue, more


Email Megan Wyatt at mwyatt@theadvocate.com.