Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Incidental Aquaculture in California's Rice Paddies: Red Swamp Crawfish

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Incidental Aquaculture in California's Rice Paddies: Red Swamp Crawfish

Article excerpt

  [Epigraph] "Few people in the United States realize that crawfish   are good to eat."    --Malcolm Comeaux, 1978 

Malcolm Comeaux, a Louisiana native teaching at Arizona State University, made this assertion. More than thirty years later, Comeaux's claim requires revision. Recent investigation demonstrates that one species of crawfish (1), Procambarus clarkii, has spread far beyond its native range, becoming both a pest to California's rice farmers and a favorite item on the menus of Vietnamese-American restaurants in Orange County's Little Saigon. This article traces the diffusion of Procambarus clarkii to California, the development of a commercial crawfish industry in the state's Central Valley, and the recent diffusion of Louisiana cuisine to the Golden State and beyond.

Comeaux was the first geographer to research crawfish. A graduate of the Department of Geography at Louisiana State University, he explored the origin and diffusion of the crawfish industry in the United States (1975, 1978). His two studies described the genesis of the commercial crawfish industry and its condition in the 1970s. Comeaux found that, because of the broad natural ranges of several crawfish species, much of the country had access to the crustaceans. However, by the 1880s, only in Wisconsin, south Louisiana, and, to a lesser extent, the Pacific Northwest did commercial crawfish harvests develop. Comeaux attributed this disjunct distribution to differences in European diets. The cuisines of France and Sweden had long included crawfish, and French and Swedish migrants and their descendants consumed most of the crawfish harvested in the United States. Conversely, populations in England eschewed crawfish. In North America, English migrants and their descendants likewise shunned the crustacean.

These early crawfishing economies followed divergent paths. Producers in Wisconsin and the Pacific Northwest primarily sold their catch to taverns, which served crawfish as bar snacks. Prohibition eliminated that market and consequently the areas' commercial crawfish industries in the 1920s. Meanwhile, in south Louisiana, within a region known as Acadiana and inhabited by people of French descent known as Acadians or Cajuns, crawfish became a seasonal dietary staple and the commercial crawfish industry grew throughout the 1900s.

In his second article, Comeaux (1978) demonstrated how the trans-Atlantic spread of a pest had created a European market for crawfish and revived the crawfish industry in the Pacific Northwest, and spurred the establishment of commercial crawfish harvest in California in the 1960s. Aphanomyces astaci, a crawfish plague fungus native to North America, spread to Italy during the mid-1800s. By the early 1900s, the fungus had expanded its range to Sweden and eventually exterminated the country's native crawfish. Swedes, accustomed to eating crawfish during two weeks in August, initially responded by importing crawfish from Eastern Europe. By the late 1960s, the country also had begun to export crawfish from the Pacific Northwest and, later, California. Comeaux (1978) explained that transportation cost, timing of harvest and demand, and competition from producers in Eastern Europe and Turkey complicated this trade. He concluded that development of a commercial crawfish industry in the Pacific Northwest and California depended on, "the creation of a large local market" (1978, 133). The growth of national and local markets has spurred recent growth of California's commercial crawfish industry.


To understand California's crawfish industry, it is vital to understand Louisiana's crawfish industry. As Comeaux discovered, by the 1880s a nascent commercial crawfish industry had emerged in Louisiana. The industry relied on a capture fishery, whereby crustaceans were captured in their natural habitat, the swamps and marshes of south Louisiana, and especially in the vast Atchafalaya Basin (Comeaux 1975). …

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