Louisiana’s crawfish industry is taking a devastating hit from the shutdown of dine-in restaurants and lack of backyard crawfish boils as efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic escalate.

“This past weekend was amazing, with St. Patrick’s Day, and people were feeling positive, but then the closure of dine-in restaurants hit,” said Laney King, who co-founded The Crawfish App, sponsored by Louisiana Fish Fry, which tracks prices for live and boiled crawfish.

That prompted the LSU AgCenter to issue press releases this week that said producers are only able to sell 10% to 15% of their catch and encouraging Louisianians to buy crawfish for boils and for freezing to use within three months. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Monday he was shutting down dine-in restaurants, limiting them to take-out and delivery, and shuttering bars and casinos in an effort to get the virus outbreak under control. Governors in other states have signed similar orders, so not only are all Louisiana restaurants banned from serving dine-in customers, but so are those in Houston, Dallas and all of the casinos in Mississippi.

“Those are places that order up to 30 sacks of crawfish at a time,” King said.

To keep the crawfish industry going, farmers have had to shift their business models. King said she’s heard of farmers driving as much as three hours to deliver live crawfish directly to consumer’s homes. “That’s how desperate they are,” she said.

Crawfish producer Gerard Frey, of Acadia Parish, told the LSU AgCenter the situation is unprecedented.

“It’s crippling right now,” Frey said. “We’ve never faced anything like it. We can only sell 10% or 15% of what we catch.”

Frey said he’s been unable to get all his workers from Mexico to fully staff his peeling operation, so he hasn’t had his processing plant running at full capacity either.

“I just laid off four workers today,” he said Wednesday. “We don’t know where this is going to end. There’s no way we can cover our labor costs.”

Frey said his labor agreement with his imported labor requires him to pay at least 75% of their contracts “no matter what.”

“We’re just hoping and praying this thing is over soon,” he said.

The glut of crawfish on the market is sinking prices. This past weekend, the average medium-large sized boiled crawfish price in the area was $4.99 a pound, King said. By Thursday evening, the price had dropped to $3.49 a pound. "Many vendors are running 10-pound specials for $30," she said.

Live crawfish prices also dropped and are currently around $1.99 a pound for medium-sized and $2.99 a pound for large, King said.

She said the crawfish industry pumps $300 million in the Louisiana economy and helps support 7,000 local families. "If we do not keep the industry alive and they're not here next year, it's going to be a huge problem," she said.

Some business owners are also feeling the pinch from reduced demand. Will Boutte, the owner-manager of Capital City Crawfish in Baton Rouge, said his sales are down 30% to 40%.

“This is a bad time with Easter coming up,” he said. “We’re not getting anymore big gatherings; all that is cut out because of the coronavirus. Our catering business is pretty much done.”

Because Capital City Crawfish is located in a Government Street shopping center, the business can't offer drive-thru service. “We’re not letting anybody walk in the door right now,” Boutte said. The business is doing curbside sales and making deliveries through the Waitr app.

Boutte is selling live crawfish for $1.99 a pound boiled for $3.50 a pound. He is offering discounts for orders over 10 pounds. A year ago, live crawfish were selling for $3.25 a pound and boiled were going for $5 a pound. Boutte hopes affordable crawfish will lure customers out.

“We’re blessed that we’re able to stay open,” he said.

Business is better at La Boilers on Perkins Lane. Dylan Lane, the restaurant’s general manager, said he’s having trouble keeping up with customer demand. “We’re well known because we’ve been in business for 15 years,” he said. “And only 10% of our business is dine-in. The rest is all take-out.”

Because people can’t eat crawfish in the dining room of their favorite local restaurants now, Lane said La Boilers has seen an influx of new customers. He said sales are up about 30%.

La Boiler is selling live crawfish at $2.99 a pound and $4.29 a pound for boiled. That’s about the same price the restaurant was charging a year ago, he said.

Business has fallen off about 50% at Heads & Tails Seafood, just down Perkins Road from La Boilers. Owner Michael Cashio said while business was brisk last weekend, it slowed recently. “The biggest thing for us is all these company crawfish boils are in a wait-and-see pattern,” he said. “That’s not good.”

Because of the decrease in big crawfish boils, sales of live crustaceans has fallen. Boiled mudbugs are still selling well, Cashio said.

He’s optimistic sales will pick up for the weekend as families decide to do backyard boils. “The kids are out and they need something to do,” Cashio said. “Crawfish boils are a typical south Louisiana activity.”

LSU AgCenter crawfish specialist and Louisiana Sea Grant agent Mark Shirley said the overall downturn couldn’t have come at a worse time.

“We’re approaching the peak of the season,” he said.

Because the amount of crawfish bought by restaurants has fallen significantly, “you’ll be lucky if all those restaurants will do 10% to 20% of what they were doing,” Shirley said.

Email Timothy Boone at tboone@theadvocate.com.