Virus attacking crawfish crop, drives local prices higher

Crawfish and Louisiana are synonymous with one another, and it’s a relationship that runs much deeper than semantics: it’s estimated that more than 7,000 people depend, directly or indirectly, on the crawfish industry, which contributes more than $300 million to the state’s economy.

That’s why recent developments have so many people so concerned.

A deadly disease called White Spot Syndrome Virus (WSSV) is a developing threat to the industry. It only affects crustaceans, so people cannot be harmed by eating and enjoying crawfish. That said, an outbreak wipes out large and medium-sized crawfish and can make a significant impact quickly.

“If it happened to your crawfish field, your production could go from 40 to 50 sacks per day to just one,” said Mark Shirley, Aquaculture Specialist with the LSU AgCenter. “It can be a drastic and sudden drop off in production.”

The virus isn’t entirely new to Louisiana, the first instances of it in state ponds was discovered in 2007. But Shirley said outbreaks have been reported at individual ponds in “about three or four parishes,” and he said the virus has had a greater effect than in past years.

“Each year we’ve had a couple of cases, with very few anchors impacted,” Shirley said. “This year, it seems like more than what we’ve had in recent years … producers, crawfish farmers, they’re very concerned.”

When a pond is affected, Shirley said, farmers may see dead crawfish around the edges of the pond, and when they check their traps, they’ll see the bigger crawfish are dead. The virus causes crawfish to lose coordination and the ability to walk or pinch.

“Only a few ponds have actually been tested,” Shirley said. “We don’t know if it’s affected just a few thousand anchors at this point. Hearing from different farmers, (they say), ‘Yeah, I experienced symptoms like that.’ Until we can test those crawfish, we’re not sure if that’s what it was.”

Erik Donnaud, manager of The Seafood Pot in New Sarpy, believes the virus may already have taken a notable toll on the supply, noting he began to see a difference roughly three weeks ago.

“The catch is down a tremendous amount,” Donnaud said. “I’d say we’re at less than half of what we were. It’s significant.”

He cautioned, though, that there are a number of factors beyond WSSV that may have contributed to this.

“I don’t know if it’s from all that rain we had for awhile, or a lot of waters coming down with rivers being so high, or if it’s that virus, per se. But I just know whatever it is, it’s hurting us big time.”

Donnaud was preparing last week for Memorial Day weekend, noting the lessened supply made it difficult to fill out orders for crawfish. The more limited supply has also affected the price of crawfish, Donnaud said — last year at this time, he notes, crawfish was $1.60 a pound, while this year it has climbed to $2.19 entering Memorial Day weekend.

That comes in contrast with the early weeks of the year, when supply was higher than normal at that point of the season and the cost of crawfish was less than it has been in recent history. “Everyone’s begging for crawfish, but that (made) it really hard,” Donnaud said. “It’s definitely a huge concern and we’ve got our eye on it.”

The disease was named when it first began to affect shrimp farms in Southeast Asia and Thailand. White dots, about the size of a pencil eraser, showed up on the shells of the shrimp that carried the virus.

“That’s one of the things that have us a little confused,” Shirley said. “On crawfish, there is no white spot.”

Last week, LSU AgCenter representatives met in Jennings with crawfish producers in order to teach them about the symptoms and how they can test for the virus.

Crawfish season runs from December to June. March, April and May are considered the peak months where both quantity and quality are greatest. As such, with crawfish season winding down, Shirley noted the biggest concern now is what will happen next year. Accumulating as much information as possible will be vital.

“It may just be always present, or it may just cause a problem under certain environmental conditions,” he said. “For instance, this year we had a mild winter … a couple of cold fronts (that) cooled ponds for a few days, and then they warmed back up. Could that be a problem? We don’t know. We need to research in that area.”

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