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Early crawfish crop encouraging after two lean years

Posted on January 28, 2013

New Orleans (AP) - After two lean years caused by summer drought and winter cold, it looks as if there will be plenty of crawfish for Super Bowl Sunday - one of the biggest days of the year for Louisiana's crawfish dealers.

Last year's wetter summer and a relatively warm and wet winter are boosting the early crop for a season that peaks in April and May. January downpours that flooded crawfish ponds will dent the total, but it's still the best early season in years, say people in the business.

"I'm buying 150 to 200 sacks a day,'' said Ricky Phillips, owner of Phillips Seafood in the Iberville Parish community of Bayou Pigeon. "This time last year and the year before I was buying 30 or 40.''

He said he's paying farmers and fishers $1.50 to $1.75 a pound, compared with $3.50 to $4 a year ago. Sacks usually run 30-40 pounds.

Prices generally drop as the season progresses. But most says it's too early to predict how prices will fare over the course of the harvest season.

The lower January prices won't necessarily show up as big savings in restaurants and stores, but consumers can expect to find crawfish more easily. Some sellers said they held prices down last year even thought they were paying more for crawfish.

"Even if we're paying $4 for them, we can't go over $4.99'' a pound for boiled crawfish, said Kenan Buchert, owner of KJean Seafood in New Orleans. He said that's his price now, and it was the same this time last year, when the crustaceans were all but impossible to get. He's charging $2.95 a pound for live crawfish, also the same as last year.

The table price is $5.99 a pound at Deanie's Seafood restaurants in the French Quarter and suburban Bucktown, and at Daisy Dukes in the French Quarter, it's $10 a pound _ or $20 per person for all you can eat at a table of four or more.

Deanie's seafood market is selling boiled crawfish to go for $3.29 a pound and live crawfish for $2.59 a pound, said Chandra Chifici, whose family owns Deanie's.

The previous year's weather plays a big part in every crawfish season. Females seal themselves into underground burrows in May and early June and stay there, eating nothing, until the first heavy rain after their eggs hatch in the fall. Because they breathe through gills, they'll die if their burrows dry out entirely.

"As long as their gills are moist, they can breathe,'' said Greg Lutz, aquaculture specialist and professor at the Louisiana State University AgCenter in Baton Rouge.

A dry burrow in autumn means the eggs, which are carried in a mass under the tail, won't set properly, Lutz said. The number of eggs varies with the mother's size. The average is about 150, and a large female can have more than 500.

If there's enough water for a successful hatch, the babies stay under the mother's tail until she removes the clay seal she created and comes out of her hole. "She will not come out of her burrow until she senses there's been a heavy rainfall,'' Lutz said. "We don't understand whether they hear it or sense the humidity in the soil around them.''

However she knows, lack of a downpour could keep a female that laid eggs in September underground until November, Lutz said. "By then, maybe only one-fourth of her babies are still alive.''

For two years, there were fewer babies than usual and they didn't show up in ponds until late fall. Cold winters kept the cold-blooded critters from doing much of anything, including eating and growing.

"This past summer, nature was a little kinder to the crawfish farmers,'' Lutz said.

Last year's totals for farm-raised crawfish aren't in, and wild harvest figures run a year behind those.

But the 2011 farm crop was the biggest and most lucrative in a decade, at 111.9 million pounds and $195.8 million dollars, according to the AgCenter's annual reports. However, the harvest per acre was the sixth-lowest from 2002 to 2011 .

And the farmers worked longer to get it, said Stephen Minvielle, director of the state Crawfish Research and Promotion Board. They usually stop producing in May, when the wild harvest ramps up in the Atchafalaya Spillway. The water there was so low for the past two years that buyers asked farmers to keep harvesting, he said.

The increased early harvest comes in a year of high demand. There's need throughout the Carnival parade season leading up to Mardi Gras. In New Orleans, the season began early because traffic for the Feb. 3 Super Bowl will bring a weeklong parade hiatus.

And the biggest single days for crawfish boils are always the Super Bowl, Easter and Mother's Day, Phillips said.

"Most everybody wants to boil crawfish on Super Bowl Sunday,'' he said.

Even when the game isn't in town.

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