Crawfish are often farmed and harvested in flooded rice fields or converted catfish ponds.
Photo | Daniel Anderson
The rain cleared just in time and the sun slowly burned away the clouds to make for a nice Sunday afternoon. The promise of free crawfish would make it even nicer for visitors to The Haberdasher downtown.
There was a line even before the doors opened at 5 p.m. Rhett Flowers used the time to set up twin turntables for an old-fashioned experience. D.J. Rhettro, as he’s known, would soon fill the space inside with the beats of classic soul, funk and blues.
“It works well on a Sunday,” Flowers said.
While those cagey enough waited outside in a makeshift grub line, most of the bar’s patrons filed through the open doors on Sunday afternoon to arm themselves with a drink of choice before the true festivities commenced.
It would be about 30 minutes before those same patrons followed the red tub of mudbugs outside to enjoy a purely Mobile experience.
Will Jones, beverage director at Southern National, said visiting The Haberdasher on Sunday was a great way to start crawfish season in Mobile.
“We’re here to celebrate the season and get a good drink,” he said. “It’s a great bar.”
Like Jones, Chelette Webster was eagerly awaiting the first serving of crawfish Sunday.
“I come here all the time,” she said. “I came here today for the crawfish. It’s a nice day in downtown Mobile for free crawfish and all you have to do is buy a few cocktails.”
Free crawfish at The Haberdasher is always a big draw for the Dauphin Street bar, General Manager Roy Clark said.
“We get a great turnout, especially when the weather is nice,” Clark said. “It’s a different feel than normal. It’s more like a backyard barbecue.”
The Haberdasher has been offering the mudbugs since 2014 and Clark has been boiling them at different establishments since 2010. He currently buys crawfish from Mudbugs at the Loop, roughly 100 pounds per week.
The price of the crawfish was a concern for Clark until recently, about a week ago, when the price per pound dropped.
“Up until about a week and a half to two weeks ago it was real iffy,” he said of hosting the bar’s first boil of the season. “It was too expensive to even consider.”
Ralph Atkins, of Southern Fish and Oyster, said crawfish prices “were as high as I’ve ever seen it at $5 [per pound]” at the start of the season.
“If you know where to get them, they might drop below a dollar [per pound] this year,” he said, “because of the economy and a number of other factors.”
One of those “other factors” is availability, Atkins said. Although crawfish season starts in November and December, temperature and the amount of rainfall can have a big impact on the price, he said.
Sierra Lockett, a hostess and cashier at R&R Seafood on the Causeway, agrees. During the early months of the season when the cold snaps hit, the crawfish stay burrowed in the mud and are harder to harvest.
“When the price was $5 per pound we weren’t selling as many,” she said. “The warmer it gets, the prices go down.”
On weekends in the spring, R&R sells between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds of Louisiana crawfish, Lockett said. The restaurant has a “to go” room where most are sold boiled to folks who take them home.
Mike Scott, a crawfish farmer and restaurant owner in Butler, said supply and demand is the biggest reason prices vary from the beginning of the season to the end.
“If there is more supply, you’ll pay less,” he said. “It’s just like any economics. You’ll pay double early in the season.”
Auburn University Extension Aquaculturist David Cline said the cost can be affected by how quickly farmers flood crawfish ponds in the fall.
“If they flood them too fast in the fall trying to get the crawfish to come out, the oxygen can be depleted by vegetation,” he said.
A drier-than-normal summer can also impact supply, Cline said.
“If we have a really dry summer, [the crawfish] can’t burrow down into the water table,” he said.
While Cline agreed that temperatures probably also have an impact, he said the use and spread of pesticides is also a problem for crawfish farmers.
“They’re like insects,” he said of mudbugs. “They’re susceptible to pesticides.”
Mudbugs at the Loop recently dropped its prices, according to a Facebook post. The price as of March 6 was $2.15 per pound for live crawfish and $3.65 for cooked. The price drops to $3.49 per pound for cooked if more than 10 pounds are purchased and $3.25 per pound for more than 50 pounds.
DIP Seafood has live crawfish listed on its website for $2.75 per pound and cooked run $4.25 per pound. The price drops for orders of more than 10 pounds cooked to $3.99 and for more than 50 pounds to $3.75.
Atkins said he doesn’t sell crawfish at his wholesale market downtown, but has gotten crawfish for friends, family and customers upon request.
“It’s a whole different world,” Atkins said of retail for crawfish. “It’s a whole different world to set up and cook with the rules and regulations for cooking.”
Crawfish boil regulations
What started in spring 2016 with a complaint from a staffer for Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson ended a year later with a new state law, but not before a very public back-and-forth took place.
The Mobile County Health Department began enforcing regulations that stated only bars downtown with access to a kitchen could boil crawfish for customers. While bars like The Haberdasher were exempt because of kitchens, others such as The Merry Widow, Saddle Up Saloon and Hayley’s had to cancel events.
For many it was government regulation stopping what had become a cultural event downtown. State Rep. Margie Wilcox (R-Mobile) introduced a bill in 2017 that would specifically curtail MCHD’s regulatory power over crawfish boils in Mobile. The bill passed that same year.
Through the bill, businesses can apply for exemption online with MCHD and then be required to meet minimum standards.
“Really my intent was to protect the flavor of Mobile, Alabama,” Wilcox said in a 2017 interview. “Getting together, sharing food and loving are part of Mobile’s traditions … we have been eating crawfish and seafood since before the Spanish came.”
Wilcox introduced a similar bill during this legislative session that would apply to the entire county. That bill, HB 347, would give the Mobile County Commission the authority to exempt a food service establishment from MCHD regulation on an intermittent basis. The local bill has passed the House and is currently headed to the Senate.
The Merry Widow will open at 5 p.m. “on Sundays in the summer” to serve free crawfish, according to an answering machine greeting from the bar.
Carol Hunter, a spokeswoman for the Downtown Mobile Alliance, said the crawfish boils are great for business at the individual bars participating.
“It’s a nice scene that people look forward to,” she said.
Hunter also suspects crawfish boils bring visitors downtown that wouldn’t come otherwise, which is positive for the entire area.
The bulk of crawfish farming occurs in Louisiana because the land is suitable and it is more cost effective to grow crawfish in the same fields where rice is farmed, Cline said.
“There’s a connection with rice culture,” he said. “Rice fields are shallow and [the farmers] will stock it with crawfish in late spring.”
In May and June, farmers start drawing down water, which forces the crawfish to burrow, Cline said.
“They plant rice at the same time,” he said. “They get the rice harvested and flood the pond in the fall.”
The farming of rice and crawfish simultaneously makes for a more natural process.
“The crawfish feed on the decaying vegetation,” Cline said. “They are provided with natural food.”
Some farmers add hay bales to the water to provide more food and others feed the crawfish with catfish food.
“The idea is to let nature do the work,” Cline said.
The only true cost associated with this type of crawfish farming is in the harvesting of the mudbugs. Farmers typically use pyramid-shaped traps made of mesh, Cline said. A fish head or other type of bait is typically used.
“The farmers put the traps in straight lines in the pond,” he said. “They run down the length of the pond.”
The size of the ponds vary, but bigger rice fields run 20 to 25 acres while 5 to 10 acres is more typical, Cline said.
Many of the Alabama farmers, Cline said, have year-round ponds that, unlike the rice fields in Louisiana, aren’t drained for a season. These farms aren’t quite as cost-effective because the farmers have to use feed for the crawfish. Many of the farms in Alabama are adapted catfish farms.
Although the costs can be higher, Cline said, the year-round ponds can result in a longer production cycle and allow consumers to buy crawfish for most of the year. Many of the farmers using old catfish ponds have to replace the soils, as tighter soils are needed to help the mudbugs burrow.
That’s what Mike Scott did in Butler. He said he started farming the mudbugs because he had the perfect land for it. He also opened a restuarant for his product called Bama Crawfish.
“The land is low and it’s right next to a creek,” he said. “There are crawfish there naturally.”
Scott said he cleaned up the land and built levees. Then he began to build ponds. In all now, Scott has 20 acres of ponds.
“I stock the ponds with leftover crawfish from the restaurant,” he said. “After a few years, I was catching 1,000 pounds per week.”
Like a traditional crawfish farmer, Scott drains his ponds to continue the mudbugs’ life cycle.
“It tells the crawfish to burrow,” he said.
Scott built the first pond in 2004 and worked it “for a couple of years” before expanding. A forester by trade, Scott said he started the farm as a hobby and had all the necessary equipment at the ready.
“I worked on the ponds in my spare time,” he said. “I was able to build them. I did it as a hobby.”
Despite having ponds of his own, he still buys crawfish for his restaurant from a supplier in Louisiana named Jacob Landry.
Scott said that’s largely because the Butler restaurant uses about 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of crawfish per week during the height of the season.
“Seventy-five to 80 percent, I have to buy,” Scott said. “I didn’t intend for it to be this way. It just worked out this way.”
Both through the restaurant and as a producer, Scott says he is able to sell his entire supply each year. He said he sold 47,000 pounds of crawfish total.
“I don’t differentiate one way or the other,” he said.
In his ponds, Scott uses dead fish and artificial bait and begins to harvest in mid-March. His season can last as late as July 4, but usually ends by the first of June.
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