Farmed Crawfish vs. Wild Crawfish
You may have wondered where the mudbugs for your boil came from. Nearly all of the live crawfish sold in the U.S. come from Louisiana, and begin life in the wild or on a farm. Market demand for crawfish in the U.S. of any kind originated in southwest Louisiana with the French Acadian settlers. As more Americans were exposed to the crawdad experience, demand elsewhere increased. This demand led to more productive ways than catching and trapping them in the wild, thus crawfish farming evolved. So, which ones taste better, wild caught or farm-raised? Is there a price difference? What about environmental impact? And finally, can I relate the issue of wild versus farmed crawfish with other types of seafood?
Using the salmon industry as an example, the pros and cons of wild and farmed are easily understood. The market presence of salmon increased dramatically after studies revealed that foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids were heart healthy. Wild salmon populations were in decline long before the public awareness of these health benefits, due to hydroelectric damming projects along rivers, in addition to environmental pollution in their habitat. As a result of supply and demand, wild salmon like Chinook, Sockeye, and Coho sell for much higher prices; usually found in specialty seafood markets. Aquaculture, or “fish farming” practices were established to satisfy higher demand, at lower prices, with a more consistent supply. These farms take the form of fish hatcheries, large netcages offshore, or containment pens in rivers. The majority of the salmon sold in restaurants and grocery stores is the farm raised Atlantic salmon. There are, however, problems with large scale farming operations of any kind. In the wild, animal populations are controlled by food availability and natural predators. In a farming environment with these factors controlled, dramatically higher population densities are possible. To keep production costs down for the carnivorous salmon, vegetable matter is blended with fish meal to create food pellets. The high Omega-3 fatty acid levels found in wild salmon come from the fish oils found in their prey, not from eating their veggies. Another issue with unnaturally high population density is the increased potential for infection and disease. Close living quarters contribute to a spike parasitic organism density. These parasites routinely stray from farming operations, finding other hosts in nature. To combat these factors, steroid and antibiotic substances are utilized. The most questionable issue surrounding the use of these supplements is to what extent pathogenic resistance in the wild and antibiotic resistance in human diseases occurs. Fortunately for crawfish, the issues and differences are not as severe.
Louisiana crawfish have been commercially available as food source since the late 1800's. The earliest account of a commercial crawfish harvest can be traced back to the year 1880 where crawfisherman netted over 23,000 pounds and bringing in $2100. In the wild, the two species of commercial significance are the red swamp crawfish (Procambarus clarkia) and the white river crawfish (Procambarus zonangulus). Because the species often coexist, it is common to find both in the same catch, and it is nearly impossible for crawfishermen to attract one species over the other in the wild. These wild crawfish are caught primarily in riparian zones, or lands and waters along rivers and slow moving streams throughout the lower Mississippi River floodplain, primarily in the Atchafalaya River basin. Because their life cycle is tied to natural patterns of flooding and draining within their living environment, extreme climate conditions like drought and heavy rain cause annual populations to vary. Delivering a consistent supply without significant price fluctuations from year to year became more difficult with steadily increasing market demand. When remote settlements and communities began to populate the rural floodplains of Louisiana, swamps and bayous were drained, levied, or filled in for development, shrinking these environs. A thriving economy based on pollutant prone petrochemicals led to a further loss of freshwater wetlands as transport and access canals were dredged, causing salt water intrusion. While older, larger crawfish can tolerate low salinity levels, the smaller younger populations do not survive, thus breaking the reproductive cycle. These pressures led to a sharp decline in commercially available crawfish taken from the wild. In the 2005 crawfish season, less than ten percent of the total 82 million pound harvest, originated as wild catch.
Most of the domestic crawfish sold in the U.S. today, comes from farming operations in Louisiana. Crawfish raising cannot be traced back to a single time and place; it was more of an evolution. Tradition and culture in Louisiana elevates the mudbug's status to that of precious commodity. Historically, there has always been such a high demand that qualitative differentiation in supply or selection based on similarity among variants never occurred. Crawfish are crawfish, as long as they are edible. If crawfish are available, wholesalers, distributors, retailers, and restaurant owners will purchase every last one, at any price, and there is never surplus. By the time anxious buyers are exchanging their cash for crawfish, the question of where the crawfish came from is not their highest priority. Because of the high cultural importance placed on crawfish, consumer demand is equally satisfied with both wild and farm raised crawfish. As farm raised crawfish begin to outnumber wild caught crawfish in the marketplace, there is little evidence suggesting consumer preference. The most important issue concerning increasing numbers from farming is simply, the overall supply for a given year has grown.
Outside of Louisiana around the 1960's, visitors and tourists who came to Louisiana, and tried crawfish for the first time, demanded crawfish in their home marketplace. Their desire was not for a whole, live crawfish, but for only its tailmeat. This demand spawned an entirely new market and a product that never existed before. Despite advances in transportation and refrigeration technology from the early Cajun days, getting a live aquatic animal to a market hundreds of miles away is challenging and comes at a high cost. With fresh or frozen packaged crawfish in the form of tailmeat, those challenges become less significant. Until the 1960's, crawfish came in one form (whole) with two variants (live or cooked). Most of these non-Louisianians loved crawfish, but didn't want the hassle of putting together a backyard boil. Packaged tailmeat exposed more people to crawfish for the first time, thus increasing public awareness and demand. Looking at the shrimp industry for guidance, several enterprising businesses sprung up, paving the way for the crawfish tailmeat processing industry. This created a huge supply problem for Louisiana crawfishermen; they could not provide enough.
With crawfish becoming more mainstream, and less of a regional delicacy, Louisiana rice farmers began to pay attention. This national public awareness coincided with a State funded project for the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission to study crawfish outside of their natural environment in small, manmade ponds. The farming community in Cajun country that practices traditional rice cultivation methods in flooded fields has long known that wild crawfish proliferate in these artificial bodies of water year after year. Since crawfish mostly scavenge for decomposing plant and animal matter, they don't require much human intervention. It was also noticed that the crawfish reproductive lifecycle coincided with the schedules of rice cultivation when the fields are re-flooded after a harvest. To most of these rice farmers, the crawfish simply co-existed. Eventually, some of these farmers began to catch or trap the crawfish for personal consumption, noticing little difference between theirs trapped in rice fields or those caught by fisherman in the wild. A few may have even turned a profit by selling any crawfish caught. Seeing this as a supplemental revenue source that allowed them to use existing land, equipment, and labor that didn't interfere with rice production, rice farmers began to raise crawfish. Subsequent Louisiana funded studies and work with Louisiana State University led to the discovery of factors that increased annual yields through crop rotation of this viable economic good. The findings of this early aquaculture research made it possible for crawfish farmers to take advantage of the same grants, subsidies and corporate structuring that other agricultural businesses are eligible for.
While farm raised crawfish dominate the marketplace, there are several operations remaining that venture out into the swamps and bayous of Louisiana for wild crawfish. According to statistics gathered by Louisiana State University's Agricultural Center for the 2004-2005 season, almost 74 million pounds came from farms, while a little more than 8 million pounds came from licensed crawfisherman. In other words, less than ten percent of all the crawfish originating from the State were sourced from traps in the wild, mostly the Atchafalaya River Basin. During that production year, there were over 1,200 crawfish farming operations, and about 1,100 crawfisherman. Looking back at catches from previous years, we see that farm production and wild harvest were not separated or differentiated until the year 1988. We also see a trend of farming operations beginning to outnumber crawfishermen at the turn of the millennia, coinciding with record low wild harvest numbers. Change in Louisiana comes at a very slow pace, while the rest of the world seems to press forward. Farming operations, with greater control, efficiency, and economies of scale are finally beginning to take over crawfish production. The hardships faced by Louisiana crawfishermen trying to earn a living on a commodity that pays less than a dollar per pound dockside are evident in the 2007-2008 season. 280 licensed crawfishermen hauled in 1.3 million pounds of mudbugs compared to over 1,300 farms producing over 109 million pounds. In all fairness though, the higher paying jobs attributed to the recovery and rebuilding after the onslaught of many devastating hurricanes probably had a lot to do with the figures for this most recent year.
At the end of the day, over a huge pile of spicy boiled crawfish, it really doesn't matter if they are wild caught or farm-raised, as long as there is availability. Crawfish farming operations have managed to keep costs and supply consistent enough to meet demand, without any of the downside seen in other aquaculture species such as environmental impact or the presence of diseases. As the word gets out, and the market for crawfish crawls from niche to mainstream, crawfish farming and the State of Louisiana will welcome a viable industry based on Cajun family values of passing a good time.