Crawfish present another opportunity for state’s aquaculture industry

The State Journal (4/23/01) by Blaine Mullins

CHARLESTON-When people think of crawfish farming, usually what comes to mind is a southern state like Louisiana or Mississippi.

However, experts say crawfish farming is just as easy in the Mountain State, with native West Virginian crawfish potentially marketable in the Great Lakes states and southern Canada.

“It’s a niche market, but not just a live bait niche market,” said Julie Delabbio, associate professor, of aquaculture at Bluefield State College. “If people are eating crawfish, why not eat West Virginia crawfish?”

Delabbio said many state farmers who have ponds have great potential to harvest crawfish.

“I don’t think we have the size of ponds to compete with Louisiana, but we have the ponds,” she said.

And the great advantage to crawfish farming is that it does not require the quantity and quality of water as other fields of aquaculture, such as trout farming.

Crawfish farming also does not require the farmer to have a year round water supply, as opposed to trout farming. “For trout farming, you have to have really good water all year round or the trout will die,” she said.

Another attractive feature in the initial production of crawfish farming is that the creatures are less susceptible to water toxicity and temperature changes than in fish farming, said Tom Jones, assistant professor of research with civil and environmental engineering at West Virginia University (WVU).

For example, in the event that raw metals from a nearby industrial operation seep into a river, stream or pond, they are considered toxic to aquatic life, he said.

Toxicology studies conducted in Louisiana, however, revealed that the toxic metals bind with the calcium in the crawfish exoskeleton, creating natural immunity, Jones said.

In addition, virtually all people who raise trout have to have a setting in which they can be fed, Jones said. “You typically feed trout twice a day,” he said. “With crawfish, there is often enough plant growth in ponds in which crawfish can feed themselves.”

Delabbio added, “It’s just a matter of ensuring that the food source is there. Any type of cheap plant material could be used.”

Another advantage to crawfish farming versus other types of aquaculture is the ease of preparing the product for market.

“The thing I like about crawfish farming is that there is not a lot of processing that goes along with it,” Delabbio said. “You’re not gutting the animal or doing anything to it.

“You’re taking the animal and putting it into a container,” she said. “It’s low-tech.”

With this in mind, crawfish represent an alternative income source to aquaculture markets that are somewhat marginal, Jones said.

Of the 21 native species and subspecies of crawfish in West Virginia, the two most economically viable are viril crawfish (Orconecetes viilis) and rusty crawfish (Orconecetes rusticus), Jones said.

“Viril crayfish exist in the Eastern Panhandle and in the southeast Greenbrier and Monroe counties,” Jones said. “It’s very common in natural population for them to reach density levels of 10-15 crawfish per square meter.

“They’re quite large as full adults,” he added. “The back of the crawfish -the largest one collected in the state – was 55 millimeters in length and the crawfish itself was 12 centimeters long.”

Viril crawfish are much larger than southern crawfish, he said.

“These crawfish are eaten in most of the northern states around the Great Lakes and in Scandinavia,” he said. “I know of at least three or four restaurants in the state that sell to customers these crawfish – The Greenbrier being one.”

Rusty crawfish commonly reach densities of 20 or more crawfish per square meter – much smaller than the viril crawfish, Jones said.

“There is a wide bait market, especially in the areas in the state that are well-known for Bass fishing – the. Greenbrier River, New River, Bluestone and Potomac,” he said.

Gus Douglass, West Virginia commissioner of agriculture, said he thinks the target market for native crawfish is in live bait.

“The popularity of fishing is growing,” Douglass said. “People are using live bait more often.”

Delabbio said the common harvesting period for West Virginia crawfish is April-July.

Ponds should be filled in October to keep the crawfish from freezing in their burrows during the winter.

“The busy time of the year is spring,” Delabbio said, “From July onward, there’s not much effort.”


Aquaculture Product and Marketing Development Project

Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design