Crawfish have been consumed for centuries by Native Americans and in many parts of Europe, but commercial sale of crawfish in Louisiana only began in the late 1800s. At that time, supplies were harvested from natural waters throughout the southern region of the state. The first record of a commercial crawfish harvest in the United States was in 1880 from the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana. That year, a harvest of 23,400 pounds was recorded, with a value of $2,140. By 1908, a U.S. Census report listed Louisiana’s crawfish production at 88,000 pounds, with a value of $3,600.
In the years following the Great Depression, crawfish sold for as little as 4 cents per pound. During this period, with the development of improved transportation and cold storage, crawfish markets within Louisiana shifted from local consumption in rural areas to higher-volume markets in cities such as Baton Rouge and New Orleans. During this same period, the introduction of wire crawfish traps resulted in much more efficient methods of harvest.
In the early 1930’s, Percy Viosca published recommendations for raising crawfish in ponds in Louisiana. In 1950, the Louisiana Legislature gave $10,000 to the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission to fund studies of the life history of crawfish in small ponds. By this time, the practice of re-flooding rice fields after harvest was becoming commonplace as a method to produce crawfish for harvest during the autumn, winter and early spring. This practice of crawfish "farming" eventually spread to closed-in woodlands and marshland as well. Up until this time, most of the crawfish available for people to consume had come from wild harvests in natural habitats. Although crawfish were very abundant some years due to high water levels in the Atchafalaya Basin and other natural wetland areas, in other years crawfish were scarce and difficult to come by. This variation in supply made it difficult for markets to grow. Once crawfish farming began, it allowed for more consistent supplies from year to year.
By the mid-1960s, the amount of land devoted to crawfish farming had increased to approximately 10,000 acres of managed ponds. At this point, an industry based on peeling crawfish became established, and the new markets for crawfish meat allowed both crawfish farming and wild harvests to increase even more. Acreage continued to increase in Louisiana, from approximately 44,000 acres in the mid-1970s to current levels of roughly 120,000 acres.
Small harvests of farmed crawfish occur in other states, such as Texas, California, Arkansas and the Carolinas, but Louisiana is by far the largest producer of crawfish in the United States. Official estimates are not available, but industry experts estimate that Louisiana usually accounts for 85-95% of total U.S. production from year to year.
Crawfish aquaculture in Louisiana is dominated by two species, Procambarus clarkii (red swamp crawfish) and Procambarus zonangulus (white river crawfish). Both species are native to the region and are well adapted to coping with the wet-dry climate cycles found throughout the Gulf coastal plains. Louisiana crawfish production has evolved over the years to take advantage of crawfish’s natural adaptations to erratic water levels, and as a result a crawfish production season overlaps portions of two successive calendar years.
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