This time last year, Langenstein's grocery in Old Metairie was selling between 40 and 80 pounds of live crawfish a day.
"We'd get four deliveries a week, around 160 pounds at a time," store manager John Gilbert said. "Crawfish is always a big seller during Carnival."
But the unusually cold winter months have pummeled the Louisiana crawfish market, leading many to declare this the worst crawfish season in recent memory.
One case in point: Langenstein's has yet to sell a single crawfish in 2014.
"This is the first time I can remember us not having crawfish in parade season," Gilbert said. He expects his first shipment to arrive on Ash Wednesday.
Experts say the dearth of crawfish has doubled the crustacean's retail value in greater New Orleans. Boiled crawfish that sold for between $3 or $4 per pound in Feb. 2013 are now running as much to $6.99, depending on the outlet.
The cause, most agree, is the series of cold fronts that lowered water temperatures across the state, preventing the cold-blooded creatures from growing.
"When the water's too cold, the crawfish's metabolism slows down," said Mark Shirley, an aquaculture specialist with the Louisiana SeaGrant and the LSU AgCenter. "They don't eat, move or grow. They just sit there in the mud until it gets warmer."
The crawfish catch picks up when the water reaches consistent levels of 65 degrees and up, Shirley said. "But over the last six to eight weeks, they've been dipping below 50."
The poor conditions have put pressure on the state's thousands of crawfish farmers to supply a growing demand for the mudbugs, which spikes before big events like the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras.
Stephen Minvielle, the director of the Louisiana Crawfish Promotion and Research Board, said his phone has been "blowing up" with requests from anxious crawfish purveyors.
"We're about 70 days behind where we were last year," Minvielle said. But that hasn't stopped farmers from laying out cages and traps.
"Louisiana has 250,000 acres of crawfish fields and farms, and we're putting all our resources into it," Minvielle said. "The industry is going full-tilt."
J&J Seafood in Gretna, unlike a number of other restaurants in the region, has had crawfish on the menu since late January. "It's our most popular dish, besides crabs," said owner Michael Jackson. "Everybody wants crawfish."
Still, Jackson said that J&J's crawfish supplier makes deliveries only twice a week, compared to the daily shipment he has come to expect in late February.
"I've been telling customers, 'If you want crawfish, just call me before you come and I'll tell you if we got 'em.'"
Crawfish fans are often willing to shell out higher prices and travel great distances to enjoy the dish. Sam Irwin, author of the newly released "Louisiana Crawfish: A Succulent History of the Cajun Crustacean," said he has known people to drive 300 miles, round trip, to buy crawfish during shortages in years past.
"Crawfish make people crazy," Irwin said. Indeed, he had initially wanted to title his book "Crazy About Crawfish."
Despite the general consensus that cold temperatures caused the crawfish deficit, some restaurant owners saw other factors at work. Merlin Schaefer, the owner of Schaefer Seafood in Metairie (boiled crawfish: $5.95 per pound), believes that a shortage in seasonal workers, along with a rise in crawfish farmers leasing their ponds to duck hunters, has exacerbated the problem.
"You can't put traps out when you've got a duck blind in your pond," Schaefer said.
But Dexter Guillory, a crawfish processor at Riceland Crawfish in Eunice, disputes Schaefer's theory. It's true that recruiting seasonal laborers, primarily from Mexico, has become more difficult in recent years, Guillory said, due to tighter restrictions in the H-2B program, which allows U.S. employers to hire foreign nationals for temporary work.
"But a lack of foreign workers, as far as I know, is not a problem for the crawfish industry," he said. "The same goes for the duck hunter idea."
The industry saw a sliver of optimism earlier this week, after a warm spell caused farmers to drop their prices.
"Production is picking up a bit," said Jeff Pohlmann, a part owner of Today's Ketch in Chalmette, which lowered its price per pound of boiled crawfish from $6.99 to $5.99 on Monday (Feb. 24).
Still, a sense of being at the mercy of greater forces prevails among many Louisianians who depend on crawfish for a living.
"Crawfish translates into business for us," said Kenan Buchert, the manager of Kjean Seafood in Mid-City, where crawfish are in limited supply. "It just goes to show you: Humans are not in control."