HOUMA — Consumers nationwide are hungering for a product that has long been a south Louisiana favorite.
Seafood lovers nationwide are discovering the Louisiana crawfish, and demand from residents outside the state is leading the industry to perfect new ways to increase output and deliver crawfish to consumers farther away.
Louisiana has as many as 1,600 harvesters of wild crawfish and just as many crawfish farmers.
According to the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, the 110 million pounds of crawfish harvested each year in Louisiana have an economic impact of $120 million.
Stephen Minvielle, a crawfish farmer and director of the Louisiana Crawfish Farmers Association, said he saw national interest in crawfish begin to pick up five years ago, and it has been growing.
Production and sales are up more than 50 percent from 10 years ago.
“It’s amazing some of the calls we get,” Minvielle said. “From all the way out in north Louisiana to New Jersey.”
As Cajuns moved to distant cities for work or were transplanted after Hurricane Katrina, new markets began to emerge. Cajuns in Memphis, Tenn.; Little Rock, Ark.; Dallas; and Austin, Texas, regularly demand crawfish from their local fish markets.
Big crawfish festivals have popped up on the East Coast and West Coast, and more groups are turning to traditional crawfish boils to spice up parties, Minvielle said.
Kyle LeBlanc, owner of Kyle LeBlanc Crawfish Farm in Raceland, has been shipping live and boiled crawfish across the country since 1990 and was one of the first to specialize in the business.
LeBlanc’s website includes customer comments from across the country and even from Canada.
LeBlanc’s father was also in the business, shipping shrimp, oysters and crawfish from Louisiana to Vicksburg, Miss., via truck.
“It’s in my blood, I just took it up a notch,” LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc attributes some of the increased interest in Louisiana food and culture to the huge popularity of Louisiana-based reality shows such as “Swamp People,” which averaged more than 4.1 million viewers at its peak. With the popularity of “Swamp People,” LeBlanc said, the price of alligator meat shot up from $4.50 a pound to $9.50 a pound.
“It’s the same thing with crawfish,” LeBlanc said. “Anything Cajun is a hot commodity right now.”
Jimmy Cantrelle, a Thibodaux crawfish farmer who has been in the business for 13 years, sells most of his crawfish through a buyer that ships it all over the country.
“People all over the world are starting to realize that crawfish tastes really good,” Cantrelle said.
LeBlanc said he was doubtful that the market for crawfish could expand much because while crawfish can be caught for about nine months of the year, significant catches occur only for a few months. He said it also takes a lot of knowledge, skill and commitment to farm and catch crawfish.
Crawfish harvest officially starts in November, with the peak being from February through May. Prices are typically higher in November and December when there’s fewer crawfish to be caught because the mudbugs will burrow during colder weather.
But Minvielle said the Louisiana State Crawfish Research and Promotion Board, which he is executive director of, has paid for a number of projects to help meet the demand.
That includes research into frozen crawfish boiled whole, as well as automated processing.
Sales of pre-boiled crawfish outside of Louisiana have doubled since 2009, Minvielle said.
Selling it already boiled is necessary in some states. Colorado, for example, has banned the import of live crawfish because the Louisiana red swamp crawfish is considered an invasive species in some places.
In addition, the board is working on developing automated peeling machines because live workers can’t keep up with peeling demands at the peak of the season.
“The best worker on the planet can do about 50 pounds per day,” Minvielle said. “But we have crawfish coming in in huge numbers for about 60-90 days (at peak season). Even if I pulled in every person I could find off the street we couldn’t peel the amount of product we have to sell.”
With automated peeling machines, more crawfish could be peeled to store for lean times like over the holidays when most farmers cease production.
“It’s sad when you have this demand and nothing to sell,” Minvielle said. “We’re trying to make the best game plan.”
Other initiatives include developing a grading standard for crawfish so buyers out of state will have a better idea of the kind of product they’re getting. Also, the board hopes to market crawfish better outside of Louisiana.
“Whether it’s a jumbo product or something else, a lot of time it depends on who you talk to on a given day,” Minvielle said. “When we market, we need something to stand solidly on.”
With consumers increasingly looking for environmentally friendly food options, crawfish are uniquely posed to fill that gap, Minvielle said.
The Monterrey Bay Aquarium of California, which runs the strict Seafood Watch sustainability list, has listed crawfish as the No.1-ranked, sustainable-grown aquaculture crop in the United States.
“And we got that without even trying,” Minvielle said. “No one paid for that study.”
That’s because crawfish love “to eat microorganisms, it’s not intrusive, and produces water-quality enhancement,” Minvielle said.
Minvielle said he’s expecting a more-productive crawfish season this year with harvests kicking into high gear just in time for Mardi Gras and the Super Bowl.