The local crawfish market has had a rollercoaster of a 2020 season

The Louisiana crawfish industry and local restaurants have taken a beating this year.

The COVID-19 pandemic froze dining in at restaurants for weeks, and it’s also meant locals were less likely to throw crawfish boil gatherings for friends and family. And that increased supply and decreased demand left many farmers with little choice other than to dry their fields and turn to rice production.

The coronavirus hit fairly early in the 2020 crawfish season, and the shelter-in-place order by Gov. John Bel Edwards lasted through much of the season’s usual peak—especially around Easter time. Crawfish prices dropped to record lows during the first week of the shelter-in-place order.

“We’ve been doing this for 38 years, and this is the first time in 38 years that we lost our crawfish season. It’s like losing your crop as a farmer,” says Michael Cashio, owner of Heads & Tails Seafood restaurant and market. “We lost our crop.”

Normally during this time of year, a large portion of Heads & Tails’ income comes from catering. Cashio says his company had originally anticipated a busy season, with plenty of catering bookings before the pandemic hit.

But it’s not only been the decreased demand that’s hurt crawfish producers—they’ve also had to change protocol because of social distancing requirements. And state health officials announced that three farms across the Acadiana region had coronavirus outbreaks, with around 100 people testing positive as of mid-May.

Natural factors have also made this a tougher season, according to Mark Shirley, a crawfish specialist for the LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant. Weather conditions during last fall and winter led to a lack of food for the crawfish—and left farmers with small crawfish throughout the season.

Farmers have also been dealing with white spot syndrome virus, a disease that only affects crustaceans and is not harmful to humans. The disease devastates crawfish populations, decreasing yields substantially by killing smaller crawfish.

Oftentimes, farmers cease crawfish production late April to early May. But this year’s unique storm of challenges led many farmers to dry their fields and turn to rice production almost a month earlier than expected.

Now, crawfish prices are bouncing back, according to Kurt Guidry, a professor in the LSU AgCenter Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness, likely due to the decrease in supply.