By far, the largest crustacean aquaculture industry in the U.S. involves the culture of Louisiana’s red swamp crawfish and white river crawfish. Smaller harvests of farmed crawfish for human consumption occur in other states, such as Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, California and the Carolinas, but Louisiana is by far the largest producer of crawfish in the United States.
Apart from these two crawfish species, there are several other “crayfish” species that are raised commercially, mostly in the Midwest and and Northeast, and mostly for bait. Although scientists throughout the world use the term “crayfish” for these and all related species, the term “crawfish,” will be used for much of this discussion to reflect not just the common names of major species, but also the widespread use of the word by producers, marketers and consumers in Louisiana and elsewhere.
Crawfish have been consumed for centuries by Native Americans, and other crayfish species have been prized fare in many parts of Europe since medieval times. Commercial sales of crawfish in Louisiana began in the late 1800s. At that time, crawfish were harvested from natural waters, and the first record of a commercial crawfish harvest in the United States was in 1880. That year, a harvest of 23,400 pounds was recorded with a value of $2,140. By 1908, a U.S. Census report listed Louisiana’s crawfish production at 88,000 pounds, with a value of $3,600. With the development of improved transportation and cold storage, crawfish markets within Louisiana shifted from local consumption in rural areas to higher-volume markets such as Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
In 1950, the Louisiana Legislature funded the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission to study the life history of crawfish in small ponds. By this time, the practice of re-flooding rice fields after grain harvest was occasionally practiced to produce crawfish, and crawfish “farming” also eventually spread to closed-in woodlands and marshland. By the mid-1960s, the amount of land devoted to crawfish farming in Louisiana had increased to approximately 10,000 acres of managed ponds.
Crawfish aquaculture in Louisiana is based on farm management practices that mimic annual hydrological and vegetative cycles in the natural habitat, and natural reproduction is relied on as a source of hatchlings each season. Newly established ponds (and rice fields used in crop rotation) are partially flooded and stocked in the spring with adult crawfish. Soon after stocking, these crawfish burrow along the pond levees to reach wet soil below the surface, plastering and sealing their burrows from the inside to conserve moisture over the summer months ahead. As summer progresses rice is harvested and stubble begins to regrow. Alternately, a forage crop of rice or natural vegetation is grown, but in either case all while crawfish pass the summer months in their burrows.
Female crawfish begin to lay eggs, while still in their burrows, as early as late August. Production ponds and rice fields are flooded over the following weeks (late September through late October). During this period many female crawfish leave their burrows and re-enter the ponds, often with eggs or newly hatched young attached to their tails. This emergence does not occur all at once, but some portion of the females can be expected to leave their burrows after every rainfall event. In this way, there are various waves of hatchlings entering the pond throughout the autumn.
Once flooded, the vegetation that grew during the summer begins a gradual breakdown process to support a natural food web that can yield between 350 and 900 lb. of harvestable crawfish per acre over the following 7 to 8 months. Depending on several factors (temperature, water quality, food availability and population density), hatchlings will grow to market size in 8 to 16 weeks. Harvesting relies on the use of boats and baited traps, beginning as early as December and often continuing through May or June, with peak harvests from March through May. In cold weather, natural bait such as shad, menhaden or carp is the most efficient choice, but in warmer temperatures manufactured bait generally catches more crawfish.
Regular, frequent harvests are essential for profitability. Ponds with excessively high populations often suffer from “stunting,” the density-related cessation of growth prior to attaining marketable size. As early as 1975, researchers identified inadequate harvest pressure as the primary cause of stunted populations. By late spring, most food resources are exhausted and many mature crawfish burrow into the ground for the summer. The cycle is repeated with a new generation of adult crawfish and vegetation is once again cultivated to feed the next season’s crop.
Historically, crawfish farmers have faced few or no issues with diseases, but that has changed over the past two decades. Originally described in shrimp farms in Thailand in 1992, White Spot Syndrome Virus (WSSV) has been a problem in Louisiana crawfish ponds since it was first confirmed in the state in 2007. Cases have been reported in farmed crawfish every year since, usually in March or early April. Typical signs of a WSSV outbreak are a drastic drop in catch over just a few days. Most of the medium-sized and large crawfish die but small crawfish continue acting normally. Dead crawfish are often seen floating throughout the pond or windblown along the levees. Large crawfish that are not yet dead are usually slow-moving and uncoordinated. Estimates of the total impacted acreage peaked during the 2016–2017 season, ranging as high as 40,000 acres. When a pond “breaks” with WSSV, the producer often faces severe economic loss.
Crawfish farming, as practiced in Louisiana and the surrounding region (primarily Texas and Arkansas), requires specialized harvesting boats and traps, as well as regular and reliable supplies of natural and manufactured bait. A sufficient water supply is critical in order to maintain suitable water quality as vegetation breaks down over the course of the season. The industry in Louisiana utilizes both well water and surface water from canals and bayous. Water supplies should be able to allow for pumping 2.5 to 4 acre-feet of water per surface acre over the course of the season, with a minimum capacity of 40 gallons per minute per surface acre.
Louisiana’s crawfish farming industry has grown to include more than 1,500 farms occupying more than 280,000 acres. Total farm production for the 2020 season was more than 170 million pounds, with a farm gate value exceeding $230 million.
In the upper Midwest, a number of crayfish species are available for culture as bait and for human consumption, although growth and productivity of these species are often less than those of red swamp and white river crawfish. These more northerly crayfish generally lay their eggs in the spring, with most hatchlings released from their mothers and growing on their own before the end of May. As a result, these crayfish species often require two growing seasons to reach marketable size. Unfortunately, low oxygen levels associated with winter ice cover can occasionally result in high mortality levels. With proper management, however, marketable size for human consumption can be attained reliably by the end of the first growing season for some species. And in almost all cases, these crayfish can be harvested for bait at less than one year of age. A closely related species to the southern white river crawfish can be found throughout much of the Midwest, with spawning and life history characteristics that are much more favorable for year-round production. This species is often found in commercial fish ponds and government hatcheries.
Formulated feeds have not proven economically feasible for northern crayfish production. The most economical strategy has been to use wheat straw and alfalfa hay to serve as the basis of natural food webs. In ponds that are harvested throughout the summer months, yields of Papershell crayfish between 700 and 800 lb. per acre have been documented, and harvests from wild rice paddies can range from 550 to 675 lb. per acre. However, larger, mature animals become scarce before autumn as they begin to burrow for the winter.
The USDA 2018 Census of Aquaculture reported 31 farms producing crayfish for bait in 14 states. New York led with six farms, followed by Ohio with five and Arkansas and Nebraska, each with three. Other temperate-climate states reporting crayfish production included Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina and West Virginia. Temperate-climate states reporting production of crayfish for food included Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
There are also a very few farms producing the Australian Red Claw crayfish in the U.S. As crayfish species go, the Red Claw is quite docile and reaches large sizes. It is, however, a tropical species and this, in conjunction with many state and local restrictions on exotic aquatic species, severely limits the possibilities for profitable production.
A number of hard questions must be considered when evaluating production of crawfish or crayfish. Is the business plan realistic, with monthly objectives and projected cash flows for the first year and annually for each of the next three to five years? Is sufficient capital available for start-up, operations or expansion? Are cost estimates and pricing projections reasonable? Are the estimated profits worth your labor and resources? Are cash reserves adequate to cover equipment failures and other unforeseen problems? Will any lender accommodate your production/marketing cycle? Have you identified your primary and alternative markets? Is the profit potential for crawfish or crayfish farming competitive with other possible investments or activities? Is the available labor pool willing to work long hard hours, daily, during the harvest season?
Review and evaluate the regulatory aspects of crawfish or crayfish in the state where production will take place. Make sure all licenses and permits can be obtained within a reasonable time table and without undue bureaucratic resistance prior to any financial commitment. When considering where product will be sold or shipped, keep in mind that in recent years many states have enacted rules and regulations restricting commerce, and even possession, of non-native crayfish species. In some cases, penalties for violators can be severe. Many of these regulations were promulgated as a result of changes in the way the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enforces interstate commerce in injurious non-native species following court challenges over the past decade.
Outside of the Louisiana industry, virtually all buyers want and demand a consistent supply – and buyers at all levels of the value chain want live product. This, in conjunction with a limited storage life for live product and necessary population management to prevent stunting, requires regular harvests, typically 4 or more days per week. Live crawfish are not transported in water, but rather consolidated in plastic mesh sacks. Sacks hold about 35 to 45 pounds of crawfish depending on the average size and the producer’s packing method. To minimize crushing, sacks should not be packed too tightly, but sufficiently tight to restrict crawfish movement.
Sacks of live crawfish can be transported in open bed trucks for short distances, but sacks should be covered with a tarp to minimize drying of gills. Some wholesalers haul sacks of live crawfish over long distances, or in larger quantities, in insulated trucks, with or without refrigeration. Crushed ice is placed over the sacks in non-refrigerated trucks and, in some cases, refrigerated trucks, to reduce crawfish metabolism and maintain a high level of humidity to increase shelf life.
Supply and demand exert strong price influences on day-to-day and week-to-week bases, but this is not necessarily the situation for crawfish producers in regions that are more removed from the center of production in south-central Louisiana, nor for crayfish producers in other parts of the country. Nonetheless, when planning a crawfish or crayfish farming facility it will be necessary to calculate the productive capacity of the operation in order to estimate capital costs, projected production, revenues and input requirements. At this point, an evaluation can begin in order to determine if the operation will be large enough to generate profits and if so, a market analysis can be undertaken.
Markets (brokers, restaurants, seafood dealers, bait dealers, on-farm direct to consumer sales, etc.) must be available to accommodate production when it is ready for harvest because maintaining these animals beyond a harvestable size tends to stunt the overall population and results in an unproductive use of facilities and capital. Keep in mind that developing and maintaining committed relationships with both suppliers and buyers will be crucial. No matter what your scale of production will be, you will need to provide value through quality control, harvest scheduling and customer service. In turn your customers must also be willing to provide reliable outlets for your harvests when you need to move them.
Accurate and detailed cost projections are essential when establishing any aquaculture business. Projected costs (variable, fixed, marketing and opportunity costs) must be compared to prevailing market prices for the sizes and amounts of the crawfish or crayfish you intend to produce. Keep in mind economies of scale, because a smaller operation will have higher per-unit costs and will require a number of small-volume, local markets that are willing and able to pay higher prices. When a small operation loses a customer, alternatives may be limited or nonexistent. Input suppliers (bait, traps, sacks and equipment) must be reliable and trustworthy, even when larger customers are competing with you.
Even in areas far removed from any crawfish or crayfish production, prospective producers must consider competition from imported products. Throughout the country, many grocery stores and seafood businesses sell frozen or thawed imported crawfish products. Historically these have originated in China, a country that produces almost 20 times as much crawfish as Louisiana. In recent years, however, significant import volumes have also originated in Spain and Egypt.
Prepared by C. Greg Lutz, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center