Coronavirus restaurant closures spell trouble for Louisiana crawfish producers

Crawfish producer Gerard Frey of Acadia Parish says people in his field are dealing with unprecedented struggles in the wake of the coronavirus and the subsequent shutdown of restaurants in Louisiana. ‘It’s crippling right now,’ he said.

C R O W L E Y — As the nation’s economy has ground to an abrupt halt, crawfish producers are dealing with fallout.Restaurants have shuttered, with many offering only delivery or drive-through business, so they aren’t buying much crawfish.

Crawfish producer Gerard Frey, of Acadia Parish, said this is unprecedented.

“It’s crippling right now,” Frey said. “We’ve never faced anything like it. We can only sell 10 or 15 percent of what we catch.”

He said he’s been unable to get all his workers from Mexico to fully staff his peeling operation, so he hasn’t had his processing plant running at full capacity.

“I just laid off four workers today,” he said. “We don’t know where this is going to end. There’s no way we can cover our labor costs.”

He said his labor agreement with his imported labor requires him to pay at least 75 percent of their contracts “no matter what.”

“We’re just hoping and praying this thing is over soon,” Frey said.

Many rice farmers have depended on crawfish to keep them afloat, he said, but that is gone now.

“Our crawfish season is basically over,” he said. “There’s so much fear and so much panic going on.”

He said he had buyers in Dallas and Houston cancel any further business.

“The fear is the unknown,” Frey said. “I don’t know what it’s going to take to recover from this. This just dropped in our laps, and we had no way to prepare for it.”

Vermilion Parish farmer Christian Richard said the catch was just started to pick up.

“The catch really turned on this week,” he said. “We’re crawfishing as much as we can.”

Richard said crawfish had been plentiful, but the numbers and size increased suddenly with warmer weather.

Some people are buying sacks of crawfish to boil at home, but it’s a small amount.

“There’s just not that many people buying,” he said.

Farmer Mike Hundley in Acadia Parish said sales to restaurants have decreased considerably.

“That’s come to a halt,” he said.

Hundley has a crawfish restaurant in the Mowata community, Mo Crawfish, but it won’t be able to operate at a profitable level, so he’s going to try an alternative — a drive-through.

LSU AgCenter crawfish specialist and Louisiana Sea Grant agent Mark Shirley said this couldn’t have come at a worse time.

“We’re approaching the peak of the season,” he said.

Because the amount of crawfish bought by restaurants has fallen significantly, “you’ll be lucky if all those restaurants will do 10 to 20 percent of what they were doing,” Shirley said.

Processing plants can only afford to buy so much crawfish to be peeled and frozen, he said. Processors must factor the expenses of labor to peel, package and freeze the crawfish with the hope of selling it for a profit.

Shirley said it’s likely that buyers will give crawfish producers a quota to limit the sales.

Added to all of that are the unknown factors of what processors and farmers will do with immigrant labor.

Richard said if processors buy a limited amount of crawfish, he won’t be able to afford to keep all his workers. They will have no choice but to return home — if they can get there.

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