Louisiana governor issues disaster declaration for crawfish shortage amid extreme weather and drought

Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry issued a disaster declaration Wednesday for the state’s critical crawfish industry, as extreme weather disrupted this year’s harvest and triggered a shortage of the tiny crustaceans.

Louisiana is the country’s top producer of crawfish – a staple in Gulf Coast cuisine such as crawfish étouffée, gumbos and po-boys. The brick-red creatures have been harvested commercially in Louisiana since the 1800s, and the industry brings in more than $300 million for the state’s economy each year.

Early estimates from Louisiana State University’s Agriculture Center showed potential losses to the state’s crawfish industry could be nearly $140 million for this year’s harvest season. But the economic blow could ultimately be higher, said Mark Shirley, a crawfish specialist at the center. While crawfish production has increased in recent months, the industry’s numbers remain “disastrously low,” he told CNN.

The shortage also affected Mardi Gras. Carnival season usually attracts tourists to New Orleans from all over the world, where they tend to gorge on the state’s classic seafood boils that typically include pounds of freshly cooked crawfish. It’s also a popular staple during Lent season, when most of Louisiana’s Catholics seek seafood alternatives to meat.

Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, lamented the blow to Mardi Gras this year in a late-February letter to the US Department of Agriculture that requested federal relief.

“Mardi Gras 2024 was still celebrated, but this time without abundant and affordable crawfish,” Strain wrote. “For the first time in many years, due to sustained drought in 2023 and freezing temperatures in early 2024, crawfish are simply unavailable.”

Last year’s severe dry spell and extreme heat, followed by freezing temperatures in early 2024, disrupted harvest season across the state, officials say. 2023 was the warmest year on record for Louisiana, with 75% of the state reaching exceptional drought — the highest in the nearly 25-year history of the drought monitor data.

The drought, one of the most severe on record, made the ground too dry for crawfish to dig and lay eggs, Shirley said.

Louisiana also grappled last year with saltwater intrusion on the Mississippi River, which contributed significant damage to the industry. Crawfish, which are freshwater creatures, are unable to tolerate high salt levels. Salt makes it difficult for the crawfish to breed, grow and survive.

These combined effects led to a significant decline in crawfish populations in farms and in the wild, resulting in lower harvest yields and higher prices, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture and Forestry. The small yield greatly affect crawfish farmers, who rely on the season’s bountiful harvest, which begins in late November and lasts through the spring, for their income.

“Louisiana’s extreme drought conditions have affected our farmers, our economy, and our way of life,” Landry said in the declaration. “All 365,000 crawfish acres in Louisiana have been affected by these conditions … The crawfish industry needs all the support it can get right now.”

The state boasts more than 1,000 crawfish fishermen and over 1,300 crawfish farmers, who supply up to 120 million pounds of crawfish per year, according to the wildlife and fisheries department.

“We have been monitoring the supply of crawfish, talking to many individual farmers as well as the buyers who purchase and deliver crawfish to markets within and outside of Louisiana,” Shirley said. “$140 million or so — that’s money going to small, rural communities in Louisiana that they’re not going to see this year.”

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