Like other Louisiana denizens, crawfish rode out the recent cold by bundling up and lazing around. Except, when the crustaceans burrow into the mud to ward off the chill, they enter a special dormant state.
So, the frigid weather that's kept the mudbugs immobile also means they haven't been feeding and growing. That means fewer to harvest and prices remaining high for crawfish lovers for the time being.
Experts are predicting a delayed season this year due to cold weather and low water levels. However, they're hoping for a jumbo haul once the water warms up. At the same time, some worry about an insidious and little-understood disease that could cull crawfish numbers.
The cold and ice that swept through southeast Louisiana Tuesday and Wednesday froze transportation networks, forcing the closure of roads, bri…
"This cold isn't going to kill our crawfish, but it may knock back our harvest … in indirect ways. These crawfish can sit under the ice for two or three weeks with no problem," said Greg Lutz, a professor at the LSU Agriculture Center's Aquaculture Research Station in Baton Rouge.
When temperatures plummet, crawfish hole up and kind of hibernate, explained Jody Meche, president of the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West. A few young individuals in shallow water may die, but on the whole they can ride out a cold snap.
"As soon as it warms up they start doing their thing again," he continued.
The animals start getting lethargic once the thermostat dips below 55 degrees, Lutz said, and by the time it approaches 41 degrees they stop moving entirely. But they can survive the cold in "suspended animation" and are only really threatened if their pond freezes over for several weeks, when oxygen levels in the water drop dangerously.
But when crawfish aren't moving they aren't eating, getting bigger and molting.
Tony's Seafood co-owner Bill Pizzolato said that during the cold snap crawfishermen were delivering about a half or a third of the product he was getting at his Baton Rouge establishment this time last year.
As such, the price has risen by about a dollar per pound compared to 2017, he said. Tony's was selling boiled crawfish for $5.69 per pound on Sunday.
"We're looking forward to hopefully a good season, it looks like it's just going to be a bit later. … The cold weather is just going to slow the growth down," Pizzolato said.
Most of the crawfishermen are still taking advantage of duck season before they start laying traps, Meche said, and he doesn't typically expect the crawfish to start getting active until about mid-February each year.
Meche is more concerned about shallow water in the Atchafalaya Basin.
"Most of the swamps are dry," observed Dean Wilson, executive director of the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, an ecological nonprofit.
Levels aren't bad enough to cause crawfish to die off, though, Meche said. Recent rain has helped, and melting snow will soon refresh the water and give crawfish room to move and grow. The National Weather Service has also predicted a wet season, Meche and Wilson said.
Both men pointed out the notorious difficulty of predicting what the weather and the crawfish will do, but Meche said he's cautiously optimistic about the 2018 season.
Fewer crawfishermen are laying out traps than in the past, meaning some drier and less productive areas may not have been fished for a few years. If there's enough water to hydrate those abandoned spots that have been left untouched, crawfishermen who return may be able to return with a bumper crop of large and plentiful crustaceans, Meche said.
Moreover, the recent cold weather did have some positives, Wilson said.
For one, the frigid temperatures help kill off invasive water hyacinths and salvinia, an aquatic weed. Both choke south Louisiana waterways, Wilson said.
On the other hand, the cold could also cause snails and insect larvae to reproduce and grow more slowly, which impacts the crawfish food web, Lutz pointed out. That could cause some bumps, but the 250-million-year-old species "has seen a lot worse than this," the professor said.
He and Wilson are concerned about white spot syndrome. A viral disease that has long infected shrimp, Wilson discovered it in Louisiana crawfish about a decade ago. It causes them to become weak and die, though it's not harmful to humans.
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louisiana crawfish producers, beware.
Lutz said the disease hasn't had a major impact on the crawfishing industry, though an uptick in cases last year raised concern. The disease isn't well understood, but scientists suspect that fluctuating temperatures weaken crawfish and make them more susceptible to white spot.
Still, authorities are waiting to see what exactly the crawfish have in store this season.
"They're a strange animal. They always surprise you," Lutz said.
Wilson said the same: "Every time I think I've figured them out they prove me wrong."