If crawfish prices seem a little high to you this year, you’re not imagining it. “A little high?” says Josh Smith, co-owner of Lazy J Crawfish in New Braunfels. “Try a dollar fifty high.” Lazy J, which Smith runs with his brother Adam, supplies both restaurants and the public with live crawfish, and will soon serve boiled crawfish at a new food truck. The Smiths are currently pricing sacks of the squirming, freshwater crustaceans at $1.50 higher per pound than last year. Full, thirty-ish pound sacks that feed about ten people each (depending on your family’s appetite for mudbugs) are going for $3.75 per pound, and half sacks are slightly more expensive at $4 per pound.
Similarly, Quality Seafood Market in Austin has raised prices for live crawfish, to $4.50 per pound, which owner Carol Huntsberger says is the “highest, hands down, I’ve ever charged for crawfish.” Last year, Quality Seafood charged about $3.79 on average, and although Huntsberger notes that the price fluctuates throughout the season, she still estimates her 2021 average price will be about 20 to 25 cents higher than normal. Heading east, things aren’t much better: Houston-area prices for live crawfish on The Crawfish App, which tracks crawfish prices, range from $3.77 per pound at H-E-B to as high as $5 per pound at some independent markets. So what’s going on?
First, a primer on how the season typically progresses. In a normal year, crawfish season begins sometime around the Super Bowl in February, with the tiniest, softest-shelled, highest-priced mudbugs on the market. Prices are highest around Easter, when large holiday gatherings spike demand. All this time, the crawfish are growing larger, and when they acquire shells thick enough to protect them during transport, prices begin to drop. Typically, says Huntsberger, peak season is the third or fourth weekend in April, when crawfish are big and tasty, but not yet difficult to peel. From there, the season lasts as long as supply does—in the past, often as late as the Fourth of July. In recent years, however, the popularity of crawfish boils has increased, shortening the season. Last year, the crawfish supply at Quality Seafood was gone by Memorial Day.
This year, prices are noticeably higher. Much like everything else, crawfish prices have been affected by the pandemic. Of the many festivities canceled in 2020, crawfish boils were among the first. The world shut down during the height of crawfish season, and with little information available at that point about how the virus spread, even these outdoor social gatherings were suddenly off the newspaper-lined table. But this year, starved for opportunities to socialize and having earned their spring fever after a brutal winter, Texans are looking for ways to get together outside. Crawfish boils are high on that list. “Gatherings may be smaller—instead of twenty to thirty people, they may be doing ten to fifteen,” says Huntsberger. Judging by her orders so far this year, she says it’s “quite evident” that folks are ready to get back to boiling this year. That increased demand, of course, drives up prices.
The Easter Bunny arrives early this year, bringing even higher crawfish prices in his basket: the holiday falls on Sunday, April 4, this year. (In 2019, Easter fell on April 21.) Texas markets typically see a spike in crawfish prices just before the holiday, thanks to big orders for celebrations, and, indeed, Holy Week prices at Quality Seafood are up $.25 to $4.75 per pound accordingly. But it’s more than that: with Easter happening so early in the season, the crawfish currently available are smaller and have softer shells than folks who typically head from Mass to a boil might be used to. When these daintier crawfish get transported, “they just can’t withstand the weight of another thirty pounds on top of them. They just really get squished to death, is what happens,” says Huntsberger. That built-in loss, which she puts at between 30 and 40 percent this time of year, raises prices further during the early Easter rush.
In a surprising twist, the one factor that isn’t contributing to the spike in prices is February’s deep freeze. Russell Smith of Louisiana Wild, a crawfish supplier serving markets and restaurants in Central Texas including Quality Seafood, doesn’t think the the freeze claimed the lives of many crawfish. Most of the crawfish sold and served in Texas comes from Louisiana, and while our neighbors to the east were also affected by the historic winter weather, Lazy J’s Josh Smith thinks hurricanes were likely more destructive to the crawfish population than the freeze. A record-breaking five hurricanes made landfall in Louisiana in 2020, causing tide surges that disrupted crawfish ponds and introduced predators like crabs. This, too, is reflected in the high prices.
The freeze may actually end up benefiting the 2021 crawfish season, Huntsberger and Smith agree. With Texas shut down for over a week in February, demand briefly plummeted, allowing crawfish burrowed deep in the mud to grow bigger and thicken their shells, making them less prone to a fatal squish during travel. According to Smith, the freeze just stalled the typical late-season decrease in price, while leaving the crawfish themselves unharmed: “Would [the freeze] have hurt the pricing? Yeah. But did it hurt the catch on the quantity of crawfish? No.” And Huntsberger notes that the pause on demand might even extend the season longer.
While mudbugs may be slightly pricier than in years past, there’s hope for the 2021 season. Huntsberger anticipates prices going down as supply goes up, potentially as soon as next week. As the Easter demand subsides, prices could drop as much as $.50 to $.75 per pound. Get your propane tanks filled and your giant boiling pots off the top shelf in the garage, Texas. Peak crawfish season is on its way. And whether you like them boiled Cajun or Vietnamese style, Smith says good things will come to those who wait: “Probably two or three weeks from now, the crawfish will be phenomenal.”