BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - It's a time of year many of us love down here in south Louisiana, crawfish season, but is it changing?
What are the farmers and the retailers seeing? For that matter, what are the scientists seeing as they take a look at the finicky mudbug and how a changing climate really has the ultimate say?
It's a conversation a lot of people have down here, because the sound of a propane burner and a big boiling pot of water means one thing. Crawfish are about to hit the table. But what if they didn't? That good time isn't always guaranteed.
"I don't care what you believe about science. I don't care what you believe about politics," said Burt Tietje. "I'm telling you, things are changing out here on the farm."
Tietje has been crawfish farming in Jeff Davis Parish for more than 20 years and has more than 100 acres that he looks after. That's just a d rop in the bucket of the more than 100,000 acres in Jeff Davis and Acadia Parish alone, which is the epicenter of mudbug heaven.
Things may be changing on the farm, but this season is looking good right now.
"It's gonna be good to be in the crawfish eating business this year," said Tietje.
That's because the farms are doing fairly well. The wild Atchafalaya Basin crawfish on the other hand may be delayed. Apparently, when it comes to crawfish, Tietje said there is such a thing as too much rain, too much water.
"The basin is solely dependent on the slug of water it gets from the Mississippi River when the snows melt up north."
And this year that's a lot, so the basin won't really start catching crawfish until the water d rops. Tietje said that could be May or June. The farms though, that's where it's at now for crawfish lovers, and the farms have a bit more control over that water.
"We turn the water on in October," said Tietje. "We flood our ponds and crawfish are growing from October, November, December. We start harvesting about Christmas time."
That's during what they would consider a normal year, but normal is not something seen recently he said.
"The last two years, I haven't caught the first crawfish until mid-February. I didn't get into full production until April 1."
That's a late season, but then you have a year like we are seeing right now, the type that retailers love to see. Retailers like Bill Pizzolato of Tony's Seafood in Baton Rouge.
"If the weather is like this year, it gives you an earlier season and you'll go later if the basin comes in."
El Nino is in full effect. There's been enough rain, the temperatures have been moderate, it's good now. Things can change from week to week in this business however.
The LSU Aquaculture Research Facility in Baton Rouge does a lot of testing on crawfish. They have indoor labs and outdoor ponds to take a look at most anything, but even there, finding the science behind something that can be so finicky can be difficult.
Dr. Greg Lutz with the facility said that one aspect of the climate which could eventually impact our crawfish supply is that rainfall. If we see drier conditions during the summer and fall months in the future, crawfish populations will suffer. We would see reduced survival of mature females as they spend the summer in their burrows. That means reduced reproduction. For retailers, that means never really knowing.
"Every year is different," said Pizzolato. "It's all about nature. This year we had the warm weather. In the 80's in December. It gave us an early crop of
That crop can be difficult to accurately judge under the best of circumstances, even when people want that perfect prediction. By the way, the USDA considers crawfish to be livestock. That gives these farmers/ranchers a real challenge when they look out at their ponds.
"I'm a livestock farmer and I can't see what I'm raising out here," said Tietje. "If I had a 100 head of cattle, I could count them every day and say 'I'm going to have this many calves at the end of the year.' Here we just don't know."
What he does know is the crawfish game has changed a lot over the years. What used to be two percent of the gross income for rice, soybean and crawfish farmers in the year 2000, is now 50 percent.
Through the use of "crawfish docks," a centralized d rop off and pick up spot, it's now easier for farmers to move their catch, and easier for retailers to get it. Something Tietje now uses all the time to move his catch across the region. That's
when those finicky crawfish find their way into his traps.
"Crawfish are not very smart. They don't have much room for a brain in their tiny head. They just hang out in the trap and wait for me to come along and harvest them."
That's if the climate cooperates. Rain when you want it, just the right amount. Temperatures that aren't too hot, not too cold and don't last too long either way. The season can always change, and will continue to do so. The one thing people hope doesn't change is the end game. A big pot of crawfish, and a good time about to be had with friends and family.