Drought stress affecting Louisiana crawfish production

(08/29/23) CROWLEY, La. — It’s a few months early for most people in Louisiana to have crawfish on their minds. But the cycle of producing crawfish for those eagerly anticipated springtime boils is already underway — and this summer’s drought conditions could have an impact.

Three key problems are facing Louisiana’s $230 million crawfish industry as the state copes with the effects of a weekslong streak of record-high temperatures and minimal rainfall.

First, some of the underground burrows where crawfish spend the summer are cracking open because the ground is so dry, threatening their survival. Second, the lack of rain has increased the salt levels in water sources that producers depend on to flood their ponds. And third, there are concerns about rice, grasses and other forages surviving the hot, dry conditions and whether crawfish will have enough food this winter.

It’s a complex situation that is unfolding slightly differently in various corners of south Louisiana, where nearly 300,000 acres are dedicated to crawfish farming.

“There’s so many differences in soil type,” said Todd Fontenot, an LSU AgCenter area agent for crawfish production. “Some soils see the effects of drought quicker than others. And not everything is at the same stage.”

Much of Louisiana’s farmed crawfish is raised in rotation with rice, with many producers stocking the flooded fields with crawfish in April and May. In those fields, water was drained off between early July and early August to facilitate rice harvest.

The effects of the drought are more pronounced in fields that were drained and harvested earlier and in those with heavy soils prone to cracking when dry.

“If the burrow cracks, moisture that is inside the burrow is potentially lost, which can affect crawfish survival,” said Jeremy Hebert, an AgCenter agent in Acadia Parish. “When a crawfish seals up the burrow, it traps in moisture at the bottom of the burrow, and that helps keep the crawfish alive. Many producers are flushing their fields in order to replenish moisture to the field to hopefully reduce cracking.”

Flushing fields with water also helps keep rice stubble healthy.

“A big concern is forage,” Fontenot said. “We want to make certain that our rice comes back, that we have regrowth. That’s our food for our crawfish in the winter.”

But in some cases, flushing introduces another problem: salinity. It’s especially a concern for farmers who irrigate using surface water that has become saltier because it hasn’t rained.

While rice is somewhat tolerant of saltwater, crawfish — particularly small ones — are far more sensitive.

Hebert said he recently tested several water samples from Vermilion Parish, where sodium levels ranged from 1,780 parts per million, or ppm, to 3,100 ppm.

“The salt concentration is high,” he said. “These are surface pumps that are pumping from canals and other surface areas. These are the farmers that are going to potentially have issues.”

Without rain, Fontenot said, the salinity issue could become worse. Producers may be unable to flood their crawfish ponds, something that’s usually done from late September to October.

“If we stay this dry till flood-up, that’s where there’s going to be some hard questions,” Fontenot said.

All of this comes at a time when rice farmers are increasingly relying on crawfish to help offset skyrocketing costs.

“In the last two years, rice prices have increased but input costs also have increased,” Fontenot said. “With dry conditions this year, there’s increased pumping costs. Crawfish do fill that need and help to provide additional income to continue operating. They have become a really critical part of the farming operation.”

The cost of crawfish production also is up, with prices for irrigation, labor and equipment such as boats and traps soaring. Fontenot is hopeful that favorable weather forecasts return soon so producers can have a profitable season.

“The best solution right now is we need rainfall,” he said. “I wish I could turn on a switch and do it.”

Crawfish in a trap in a flooded rice field.

A crawfish trap is retrieved from a flooded rice field. Rice provides forage for crawfish, and the ongoing drought is prompting concerns in some places about whether it will survive. LSU AgCenter file photo

Water being pumped into a field.

A field used for crawfish production is flooded. Some south Louisiana producers are concerned about salinity levels in their water, which have risen due to the drought this summer. This could pose problems when they flood fields in the coming weeks. LSU AgCenter file photo

Boiled crawfish.

Boiled crawfish. LSU AgCenter file photo

8/29/2023 6:15:06 PM
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