Home News In Louisiana, Extreme Weather Does the Unforgivable: Endanger Crawfish Season

In Louisiana, Extreme Weather Does the Unforgivable: Endanger Crawfish Season

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In Louisiana, Extreme Weather Does the Unforgivable: Endanger Crawfish Season

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Adlar Stelly is 42 years old, which means it is fair to say that he has been involved in farming crawfish in Louisiana for just shy of 42 years.

He grew up surrounded by the shallow ponds dotted with the netted crawfish traps set by his father. At 7, he was steering the boat while his older brother pulled in the traps. Before long, he graduated to emptying them himself. He and his brother now have some 3,000 acres of ponds of their own in southern Louisiana.

He has seen abundant seasons and others that were more sparse. But over all that time, he has never experienced a season as distressing as this one, where, week after frustrating week, the traps have been so consistently bare.

The haul at one pond on a recent day was enough to fill four sacks, each roughly the size of a large pillowcase. In a better year, that haul would have been 25, maybe even 30 sacks.

“Here we are, we’re halfway through Lent,” Mr. Stelly said, pointing out what is usually the peak time for boiling live crawfish in this heavily Catholic part of the world.

“You’re running out of time,” he added. “The stress is at an all-time high.”

The persistent heat that roasted the Gulf Coast during a record-setting summer is still punishing Louisiana. Farmers and scientists say the summertime drought has delivered a blow directly to the state’s soul in a way that hurricanes or other extreme weather never have: It has come perilously close to ruining crawfish season.

Across the state, farmers have reported harvests as dire as Mr. Stelly’s, if not worse, even as they have shouldered the enormous cost of pumping in water for their dry ponds.

Crawfish prices have skyrocketed, reaching earlier in the season close to double what they were last year. Boiled crawfish, practically a staple in Louisiana, has felt more like a luxury. Last month, Gov. Jeff Landry even issued a disaster declaration, saying the industry “needs all the support it can get right now.”

The resulting turbulence and heartache reflect how crawfish figure into just about every facet of Louisiana: the economy, the culture, even blood pressure levels. (Veterans of crawfish consumption know to take off their rings as the sodium levels from the seasoning can swell their fingers.)

In Acadiana, the constellation of communities surrounding Lafayette that make up the heart of Cajun Louisiana, the smell of boils often wafts through neighborhoods. The odds are decent that any long line on a Friday night will end at a popular boiling spot. And depictions of the decapods — bright red with claws, antennae and black-dot eyes — are everywhere: crawfish curtains, crawfish tablecloths, crawfish paper towel holders, crawfish caps, crawfish T-shirts, crawfish earrings.

“It should be on the flag, you know what I’m saying?” Sean Suire, who owns the Cajun Table restaurant in Lafayette, said as he doused more seasoning on already seasoned crawfish, fresh from the boiler.

“Without crawfish,” he added, “there’s no party.”

Crawfish are often farmed alongside rice in soupy fields that are drained over the summer for the rice harvest. The crawfish then retreat into the earth to lay their eggs and emerge in the late fall as the ponds are refilled.

Only this past year, many crawfish were killed off by the heat or were forced to burrow deeper to survive, farmers and experts said.

“We know that drought can affect crawfish, but we didn’t know the extent of it,” said Mark Shirley, a longtime crawfish specialist at the Louisiana State University AgCenter. Farmers “spent three or four times as much on fuel and time pumping water,” he added. “The water was evaporating almost as fast as they were pumping it into the field.”

The harvest, which usually continues until June, has picked up modestly in recent weeks, and prices have dropped. Boiled crawfish were selling for about $7 to $9 per pound around Lafayette, according to a recent scan of the Crawfish App that many use to track prices and find nearby boiling spots; they had been going for $12 or more around Mardi Gras in February. (An average person typically goes through about three pounds per sitting.)

Still, the damage has been done: There is no chance of making a profit this season, Mr. Stelly said. The best he can hope for is making enough to cover his expenses.

Mr. Stelly recently traveled to Washington, reluctantly urging congressional representatives and federal officials to provide some financial support for the industry.

“I don’t want help,” he said. “I want to go to work, catch crawfish and make money.”

These days, Mr. Stelly does not spend as much time on the ponds as he once did. He also runs a dock where about 50 farmers in the area bring their catch so it can be sorted and delivered live to Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and even Florida.

His phone rings constantly. Buyers keep asking if the inventory is finally enough to make it worth the trip. Farmers relay their anxiety about what happens if they fail to recoup their costs. He tries to listen patiently to worries that sound a lot like his own.

The numbers have been alarming: In December, just 1,281 pounds of crawfish moved through the dock. That month the year before, it had been 78,000. In January, it took in roughly 4,340 pounds, compared with 158,000 the year before.

“Finally got you one full sack,” Chris Frith, who has a small farm, told Mr. Stelly as he dropped it off. “I wish I had five or 10.”

Mr. Frith had tried to outmaneuver the heat, using well water to moisten the burrows.

“It did not help,” he said.

“I think it probably helped to boil them,” Mr. Stelly said.

“It did,” Mr. Frith replied. “It boiled them in the ground — with no salt and no pepper.”

Crawfish farming is a fusion of science, art, faith, superstition and hard work. The formula varies from farmer to farmer. One says a successful day follows a storm, as the thunder rouses the crawfish out of the earth. Another credits his wife’s prayer. Many adhere to practices that have been handed down over generations.

And even still, the crawfish can remain mystifying.

“It’s a lot of luck,” said Mr. Suire’s father, Lucas, 60, who farms the same few hundred acres that his father and grandfather had. “I don’t understand crawfish — I’ve been doing this 39 years, and I still don’t know crawfish.”

The torturous summer was widely attributed to an El Niño weather pattern. And although some in the crawfish industry were reluctant to blame climate change, in a state that has been bombarded by powerful hurricanes, ice storms, wildfires and an ocean voraciously chewing away its coastline, here was yet another vivid display of nature’s volatility.

“Mother Nature has everything to do with it,” said Barry Toups, who has a crawfish farm in Vermilion Parish.

Unlike many other farmers, Mr. Toups, 63, came to crawfish later, after three decades working in maintenance for the local school board. Yet he moved like an experienced hand as he checked his traps one afternoon in his flat-bottomed boat, which had a hydraulic outboard motor designed for water that is roughly 18 inches deep.

His fluid motion — pulling the mesh nets from the water, swapping the old bait for a fresh chunk of porgy — was interrupted only by the occasional water snake on top of a trap or a turtle inside one. He dumped his catch on a metal grate on the boat with two chutes, one pointing to a sack and the other back to the pond.

“The small ones fall through,” Mr. Toups said, “and the big ones end up at the crawfish boil.”

He has insulated himself somewhat from the whims of the market by opening a bed-and-breakfast and by taking tourists from as far away as France and Nova Scotia on what he calls “crawfish excursions,” where, for $75 (or $50, if they spend the night), they have the opportunity to harvest crawfish.

“I figured out a way to get people to do my work,” he said, “and they love it!”

Mr. Stelly has his own aspirations, like expanding the radius of where live crawfish can be delivered. He also thinks of his daughters. His oldest is studying agriculture business at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, with plans to plow what she learns back into the family business.

He wants to hand her a robust operation one day, but recent events have shaken his certainty.

“Right now, the future?” he said. “I really don’t know.”

One morning last week, he navigated his pickup on the narrow, muddy paths winding between his ponds. The view offered a panorama of reasons the operation was not thriving: the motor for a pump that cost $22,000 and another $32,000 to fuel. A raccoon, one of the bandits that were infuriatingly efficient at ransacking traps. A traditionally productive pond that was giving him very little.

Still, he noticed that while he was out there, his phone was not pressed to his ear. The migraine that had been scrambling his mind had eased. The warmth and the breeze had calibrated to the equilibrium of a gorgeous day.

That horizon of soggy terrain, he said, had given him more than an income. It provided purpose, and now, when he so desperately needed it, a measure of peace.

His phone lit up again.

A buyer from Arkansas was inquiring about his inventory and lamenting, like everyone else, about how tough the season had been.

“Hopefully, it will start changing around somewhat,” Mr. Stelly told him, his optimism replenished, even if only slightly. “It’s going to come.”

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