When crawfish are in season, it’s hard to go anywhere in Louisiana without encountering them . It seems like every bar offers a pile of boiled crawfish for $10. Picked crawfish tails litter the sidewalks and parks. At the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, 400,000 people feast on boiled crawfish, crawfish pies, crawfish bread and fried crawfish tails. The 1994-95 crawfish season was a poor one for wild product and an average one for farmed, resulting in a relative crawfish shortage. As a result, the market for live product was strong and not much Louisiana crawfish was processed into meat. But processed tail meat from China continues to arrive by the containerload and continues to improve in quality.

Bayou Bandits

* Cormorants are a well known pesky crawfish predator, but now there is another critter out there feasting on crawfish: raccoons. The number of raccoons in southern Louisiana apparently has skyrocketed over the last decade, ever since the region's fur industry went bust. The masked menaces turn over crawfish traps in shallow ponds and even haul up the lines attached to traps in deeper waters to eat both bait and crawdads.

Suck the Head, Pinch the Tail and Save the Rest

Scientists at Mississippi State University are trying to find uses for the roughly 85 million pounds of crawfish procesing by-products that crawfish plants generate annually. One hope: the production of flavors and flavor extracts. The scientists did something called “gas chromatographic/olfactometric” evaluation of flavor extracts (which means they ran some complicated tests, then smelled the stuff) and found the following odors: popcorn-like, baked potato-like, buttery, fishy and rancid and cabbage-like. Science marches, or crawls on.

Species Specifics

* There are about 250 species of crawfish found in the U.S., only a handful of which are commercially harvested. About 90% of U.S. production-round 50,000 tons is red swamp and white river crawfish from Louisiana.
* In a typical year, 50 to 60% of all crawfish produced in Louisiana come from culture ponds - the rest from natural wetland systems.
* The largest foreign market for U.S. crawfish is Sweden, which imports about 2,500 tons of U.S. product a year.
* China's prolific red swamp crawfish was introduced into that country from Japan in the 1930's.
* Large Louisiana crawfish go to the live market, while smaller ones are packed off for meat picking. Meat yield for the latter averages 15 to 17%.

A Soft Shell Market

Remember when softshell crawfish were the culinery rage? Well, it looks like their 15 minutes is long gone. The number of softshell producers in Louisiana has plummeted from about 150 in the late 1980’s to around a dozen. The product was too expensive to produce and didn’t command a high enough price in the market.

Clean Crawfish

Even Louisiana’s most ardent crawfish promoters admit that the Chinese tail meat coming into the U.S. is sometimes cleaner and hold better under chemical analysis than some Louisiana product. Why? It seems a lot of the Chinese product is dipped in a brine bath before killing a lot of bacteria.