The Plight of Louisiana Red Crawfish in the Sacramento Valley

June 23, 2023

The Plight of Louisiana Red Crawfish in the Sacramento Valley

In California’s Sacramento Valley, the invasive red swamp crawfish is considered an agricultural menace, unlike in its native region of Louisiana, where it remains a beloved meal and high-grossing cash crop.

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Driving north up State Route 160, it’s easy to forget exactly where you are. Less than two hours from the foggy coast, beyond the suburban expanses of San Francisco’s East Bay, and through the wrinkled green mountains of the Diablo Range, you emerge suddenly into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The landscape gives way to winding, steep-banked roads, nestled between quiet waterways. Empty grain silos loom alongside the soft-edged streets, metal roofs going to rust beside imported, exhausted-looking palm trees. The land here is flat and soft with crop rows spilling out in every direction. 

At 60 miles per hour, sitting high on a levee, the muddy water could easily be one of the many tributaries of the Mississippi River. But stepping out of the car onto a gravel pull-out beside a silent slough, nature’s discrepancies are immediately apparent. Lanes are shaded by long lines of peeling sycamore trees rather than looming live oaks; beside them, 10-foot-high prickly pear cacti bloom instead of a tangle of goldenrod in late October. But there is one natural feature that’s the same: the crawfish, except they’re called crayfish around here.

Although many Americans exclusively associate the freshwater crustacean with the bayous of Louisiana, there are more than 500 species of crawfish worldwide. Outside of Sacramento, in California’s Central Valley, the species native to the region—including the sooty crayfish, pilose crayfish and Shasta crayfish—are all extinct or endangered, decimated in large part by other, invasive crawfish. Now, two types, both known for their large size and vicious habitations, dominate these waters: the green-shelled signal crayfish, which spread down from its original expanse in Oregon, and the red swamp crawfish, distinctive for their red bodies and large claws, which often go by the name “Louisiana reds.” It’s the latter I’ve come looking for, a displaced Southerner like myself. 

Pulling off into Walnut Grove (population 1,288), I walk into Tony’s Place, a dark dive that’s been serving locals since 1935. I begin to ask folks where I might find some crawfish for sale—or to eat. In early October, it’s late in the season for the region, which typically runs through early November, but I still have at least a few weeks left, or so I’ve read. 

One mustached man, walking out the door, tells me the same thing I’ve been hearing all day: “You missed them. They’re gone.” He doesn’t mean for the season; he means for good. 

Before the door swings shut, he winks, “Welcome to the Delta.”

He’s not wrong, but it’s only a partial truth. After a full day of searching, I’ve barely found a lead on a live locally-caught crawfish—much less a cooked one. You can buy them at Cliff’s Marina, I’m told, 20 miles up the river, where they’re sold as bait, but they might still be good for eating. But even faced with outright dismissal of the crustacean as a food worth finding, there’s no arguing that crawfish teem in the waters and burrow in the silt throughout the Central Valley. 

“Californians—they don’t want to eat them,” Dr. Scott Brady, a geographer at nearby Chico State University, explains to me earlier the same week. “It’s always been, ‘Why would you eat that? You put that on a hook to catch a larger fish.’” 

Brady, who is originally from Thibodaux, Louisiana, about an hour west of New Orleans, moved to the Sacramento Valley more than 20 years ago. Upon arrival, he immediately noticed the rice paddies dominating the landscape barely five miles from his new home, a sight he’d grown up with in south Louisiana. He tells me, “When I saw rice, I thought, ‘There’s probably crawfish around here.’ And I was right.” 

 Although separated geographically by more than 2,000 miles, the ecological and agricultural history of these two locales often mirror each other. Both are home to large river deltas—wetlands carved over time by moving water and the sediments it carries, slowly building and rebuilding new landforms. The Mississippi River Delta spans three million acres along Louisiana’s coast, where crops like sugarcane and rice have been grown for hundreds of years. The Sacramento Delta, formed by the convergence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers, is host to corn, wheat and rice. And after Arkansas, California is the second highest producer of rice in the country, while Louisiana is the third. 

To support this robust agricultural economy, both deltas relied—both historically and presently—on immigrant labor, making these rural communities a mosaic of Asian, European, and Central American history. And as global forces have consolidated independent farmers into large agribusiness conglomerates, both regions have become isolated and economically depressed in the 21st century. 

While the waters of both are brimming with crawfish, the taste for crustaceans in these two regions diverged greatly. American appetite for the lobster-like creatures was largely determined by European settlement patterns, as Swedish and French cuisines incorporated crawfish as early as the Middle Ages. By the late 1880s, both Wisconsin and the Pacific Northwest developed a commercial harvest, in addition to the better-known fisheries already blooming in south Louisiana. 

While the French Acadian population of Louisiana kept the industry thriving over the next 150 years, becoming the leading commercial producer of the crustacean in the 1950s, fishermen in both the Midwest and West primarily sold their catch to nearby taverns, where they were consumed as bar snacks. When Prohibition shut these spaces down in the 1920s, the crawfishing industries collapsed in tandem, their freshwater crustacean histories being lost in the process. 

In comparison, California’s crawfish industry was paltry prior to the mid-20th century. Sacramento newspaper clippings from as early as the 1870s show crawfish were both known and commercially available. However, such as in the Sacramento Valley today, they were viewed as bait or pest, and of little importance. It wasn’t until the invasion of the red-bodied crustacean more than 50 years later that perception would begin to change. 

According to Susan Ramon, a native Louisianian who has made it her mission to bring New Orleans foodways to the Sacramento region for the last 40 years, “In the late 1930s and early 1940s, a Frenchman from Louisiana bought rice property in Yuba City,” referencing one of the major rice producing counties in the state. “He trucked in Louisiana red crawfish and infiltrated the Northern California rice fields,” she continues. While others dispute when reds first appeared in local waters, by 1981, farmers discovered the crustacean in every rice-producing county in the state. 

Red swamp crawfish, also known as Louisiana red crawfish, are native to the Gulf Coast and Mississippi River Delta, reaching from the Florida Panhandle and northeastern Mexico deep into the Midwest. They are larger than the average American crawfish, their hard shells eponymously red, maturing within only four months in warm climates. Combined with their notoriously aggressive nature, they’re a formidable invader, and by the 1980s they burrowed into swamps in East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South America, in addition to throughout the United States. A 2011 study found that Louisiana reds, known as Procambarus clarkii within the scientific community, are “the most invasive crayfish in the world.”

The rampant spread of the clawed creature took on “the flavor of folklore,” according to Brady, and “growers spoke of a cursed ‘red ribbon’ of crawfish-infested rice paddies” that extended for more than 30 miles. In Louisiana, crawfish are purposely bred in polyculture systems, often in rotational ponds that are managed for both crawfish and rice production. But without strict oversight, crawfish burrow into the soil and levee banks, disrupting irrigation networks and uprooting seedlings. 

And without a historic taste or local market for them, farmers could only see the damage to their crops. “It’s great to track the academic literature about crawfish [in California], because it’s just about how to eradicate them,” Brady said. “Like, what are the chemicals that will get this out of your rice paddy?”

While researchers began studying the efficacy of different pesticides on the crustacean, a symbiotic, informal relationship developed in the Sacramento Valley between local fisherman and rice growers, who viewed crawfish traps as a form of pest control. In the early 1960s, a water mold called “the crayfish plague” decimated Europe’s native populations. Sweden began to import their catches from all over the world, including the American West Coast. 

Although Washington and Oregon’s industries attempted to meet the demand, these crawfish were deemed too small to be sold on a global market, and seafood dealers began to look further south instead. By 1976, California was harvesting 550,000 pounds per year, compared to only 17,000 pounds from the entirety of the Pacific Northwest. 

Even with this incredible growth of the local industry, the logistics of shipping live seafood across multiple continents combined with competition from Eastern Europe marked a short lifespan on the international crawfish market. Two years later, Malcolm Comeaux, a Louisianian attempting to grapple with the newly robust West Coast commercial crawfish industries, concluded that exporting the crustacean was untenable for an industry to build long-term. Rather, he wrote in The California Geographer, “the one great hope for this industry is the creation of a large local market.”

When Kelly Hutson began commercially fishing for crawfish just a few years after Comeaux wrote those words, the local crawfishing industry was at its peak. Even so, there was very little competition. In the entirety of the Sacramento Delta, “there were probably no more than 10 people that were serious and doing it full time,” Hutson says. Within that small group of fishermen, nine focused on retrieving signal crawfish from the swampy tributaries where the green-bodied crustaceans throve. Hutson decided to focus on the reds, which congregated in the rice fields. Today, he says, “It’s actually gotten to be even fewer.” Although no one keeps an exact record of who’s working these days, most locals believe only Hutson and one other fisherman are continuing to harvest commercially.  

The handful of commercial fishermen who have stayed in the crawfish business for the long haul still don’t provide their wares to a local audience, even if they’re no longer shipping their crawfish overseas to Europe. Rather, because of the elongated growing season which stretches into the fall (as compared with Louisiana’s short harvest season, which runs between April and early July), many ship the crustaceans back down South—to Mississippi, Texas, and, yes, even Louisiana. Hutson does sell some of his catch at a local farmers market, typically to a mixture of new Californians: Russians, Vietnamese folks, and uprooted Southerners. 

While it can be tricky to purchase locally-grown crawfish in the Sacramento Valley today, an informal economy remains. When Ramon arrived in the Delta in the 1980s, she often encountered individuals and families trapping the crustaceans for their own personal use. She, too, found they were typically new Californians who migrated to the West Coast in recent decades, often Vietnamese immigrants or Black Southerners who resided in the East Bay. 

“Different groups have shown up and created foodways that weren’t here 50 years ago,” Brady says. But that does not mean you’ll see crawfish on your average Sacramento Valley menu anytime soon. 

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