Crawfish farmers urged not to drain ponds yet despite drop in sales

• By Bruce Schultz •

allen McLain

Crawfish producer Allen McLain, at right, inspects crawfish caught by Ethan Trahan, at left, in Vermilion Parish last year — file photos by Bruce Schultz/LSU AgCenter

Crawfish producer Allen McLain’s business has dropped dramatically because of the coronavirus’ impact on the restaurant business.

“We’re struggling. It’s not looking good,” said McLain of Abbeville, Lousiana.

A big portion of his business is selling his product to area restaurants, but he said that has been sharply reduced.

Crawfish are plentiful and have grown to a large size, but there’s a limited market. He said sales during the week are a fraction of his normal volume.

“The weekends are about average,” he said.

Normally, McLain’s workers would be bringing sacks of crawfish from his ponds.

“The ponds are just resting,” he said. “We’re not fishing a quarter what we need to be fishing.”

Mark Shirley, Louisiana State University AgCenter crawfish specialist, said McLain is enduring the same challenge faced by many producers. Buyers are limiting how much they will purchase from producers, he said.

Peeling plants can only process a limited amount because of restrictions on the number of workers who can occupy a facility and maintain social distancing, he said.

But Shirley said it may not be the time to drain ponds, even if producers have a serious loss of business. The current population will be needed to provide a supply next year, he said, and draining a field now would curtail that potential.

“You need to look ahead,” Shirley said.

For a rice farmer, draining a crawfish pond makes sense if the field is intended for a rice crop this year. The window recommended by the LSU AgCenter for planting a rice crop to obtain optimum results closes April 15.

A field planted in rice to be used for crawfish next year can be stocked with crawfish when the rice gets 10 to 12 inches tall, Shirley said.

Just leave it flooded

But if the pond will be used for crawfish next year, the best strategy now is to leave it flooded and harvest crawfish to meet demand, Shirley said.

“Wait until May to slowly draw it down and let the crawfish burrow,” he said.

The burrowing crawfish will emerge after the summer and reestablish the population, he said.

Stocking crawfish in a rice field should be done at the rate of two to three sacks per acre with crawfish from healthy ponds. No white river crawfish should be used, he advised.

The stocking population should have at least 50% females, which can be determined by hand. He said details for determining the females can be found in the LSU AgCenter Crawfish Production Manual at https://www.lsuagcenter.com/topics/livestock/aquaculture/crawfish/crawfish-production-manual.

If crawfish are stocked too early in a rice field, the crawfish will damage seedlings, he said.

White spot virus

Shirley is getting reports of fields that have been infected with white spot syndrome virus, which has been a problem for producers for several years. That’s expected for this time of year, he said, with warmer weather.

boiled crawfish

Boiled crawfish are scooped by Allen McLain into a carryout dish in 2019.

“If a pond is infected with white spot syndrome virus, we do not have enough information to make a confident recommendation to farmers,” he said. “Some ponds have had an outbreak again in the following season, and others have not.”

He said draining an affected field now to plant a rice crop is an option, but those fields would have to be restocked with crawfish.

In permanent pond situations, Shirley said, farmers can keep the pond flooded and drain in May or June.

“There may be enough crawfish to live through the infection and survive until the fall to repopulate the pond,” he said. “There is no guarantee that the virus will not show up again next spring.”

Shirley warned that water from an infected pond could transmit the virus if it is pumped into other ponds.

He said a team of LSU AgCenter researchers has recently been awarded funds to investigate the factors surrounding the impact of white spot syndrome virus, including transmission vectors, viral resistance in crawfish and changes of the virus.

“Those efforts are just beginning and will likely take several years to come up with management recommendations,” he said.

Bruce Schultz is assistant communications specialist at the LSU AgCenter. He may be reached at BSchultz@agcenter.lsu.edu