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Louisiana crawfish industry struggling

Cordt Akers of Houston digs into a crawfish dish during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans on Saturday.
Cordt Akers of Houston digs into a crawfish dish during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans on Saturday.Alex Brandon / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

BREAUX BRIDGE, La., — "Everybody in this area eats crawfish. It's a basic food group here," said Angel McGuire, surrounded by crawfish-emblazoned sun dresses, tote bags, soap covers, flipflops and hair ribbons in her crafts booth at the world famous Breaux Bridge, La., Crawfish Festival on Saturday.

Visit a Louisiana restaurant and you'll sample the ubiquitous crawfish in gumbo, etouffee, jambalaya, quiche, breads, pies, soups, hush puppies, salads, casseroles, corn bread, remoulade, pastas, pate, crepes, stews, enchiladas and -- for a perfect Southern combination -- even grits.

But the crawfish harvest -- a $60 million industry in Louisiana and a staple of Southern culinary culture -- is at 35 percent of last season's production levels, after being first baked by a drought last summer and then pummeled by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

"When Rita made landfall near the Texas-Louisiana state line, the tidal surge brought 10-15 feet of saltwater," said Marti Harrell, executive director of the Louisiana Crawfish Farmers Association. "Crawfish are freshwater crustaceans. They can survive in some saline situations, but certainly not something like a tidal surge like that."

The crawfish ponds were so salty that even sharks, barracudas and stingrays lived there after the hurricanes. "The farmers were crabbing in their crawfish ponds."

Last summer's drought set the season off to a poor start. "When the crawfish goes into dormancy, they burrow themselves into the mud to escape the south Louisiana heat," said Harrell. "The water levels need to be appropriate."

Anemic harvest
At the Breaux Bridge Festival, however, crawfish vendors accept this year's anemic harvest as part of the business.

"Life along the Gulf Coast is a crapshoot at best," says J.C. Bienvenu ("the name means welcome in French"), whose Acadian ancestors brought their fishing traditions with them to Louisiana after being exiled from Nova Scotia in the mid-18th century for refusing to swear allegiance to the King of England. "San Francisco has earthquakes. We have hurricanes."

Bienvenu, helped by fellow volunteers with Acadian names like Poche and Latiolais, harvests the crawfish several days before the Breaux Bridge Festival from a nearby pond. After grading them by size on a scale of 1 to 3, he rinses them with water and stores them in ice-packed coolers. At the Festival, they are transported from their "holding tanks" — large gray plastic garbage bins — to vats filled with boiling water, lemon wedges, chopped jalapenos, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, and Tony Chachere's crab boil mix. After 15 minutes, volunteers scoop the critters out with large nets and "blanche" them with buckets of ice, to stop the cooking process.

At $8 per three-pound serving, prices at the festival remain unchanged from last year despite the low harvest.

Stephen Minvielle, chairman of the Louisiana Crawfish Promotion and Research Board, estimates $38 million in crawfish production losses this year. "Mother Nature is in control and she's throwing us a curveball. She gave us a double-whammy last year."

As a result, the Louisiana crawfish industry, comprised of some 1,600 farmers across the state, applied for $54 million in federal relief money and expects to get $25 to $35 million. "This is the first time our farmers have made an appeal for any disaster relief," said Minvielle.

History of crawfish
Festival vendors, however, are optimistic. "I really don't know the mystique of the crawfish. It's just a big part of the industry down here," said Bienvenu. "The Acadians' work ethic is very serious. The season is starting to come back."

"It's been enjoyed here for generations. It's a seasonal diet here for us," said Dexter Poche. "I have my own [crawfish] ponds so I'll eat them every week."

Shouting above a Cajun music band, Breaux Bridge native Mazel Mire Lasseigne, the great-grandmother of this year's 9-year-old Junior Crawfish Queen, explains her town's tie to the small crab-like crustacean which -- besides its nutritional value, at 7.5 grams of protein per quarter pound -- is more easily digested than red meat because of its short muscle fibers.

"Breaux Bridge was the first city to sell crawfish commercially, back in the 1920s. We are proud to be the Crawfish Capital of the World."

The town's rich tradition lures festival-goers back year after year. They compete in the zydeco dance contest, the etouffee cook-off and the crawfish-eating contest (the late Nick Stipelcovich, the current record holder, consumed 55 and 3/4 pounds in 45 minutes). They shop the craft booths and watch the crawfish races (the Crawfish race commissioner sends the mudbugs off shouting, "Ils sont partis!" or "They're off!").

But the main attraction remains the food. For the eighth year in a row, Shannon and Lance Wright drove nine hours from College Station, Texas, to celebrate their wedding anniversary at the Breaux Bridge Festival. Why?

"It's the crawfish, of course."