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Michigan DNR changes the rules to let you eat invasive crayfish

State officials recently updated the listof invasive species banned in Michigan. They added seven species to the list. That means you can’t have them in your possession or move them around.

But they also relaxed the rules for one invasive critter: the rusty crayfish.

Ohio crustaceans bad for Michigan waterways

Rusty crayfish are native to Ohio.  Fishermen have spread them around Michigan by using them as bait.

To learn more, I went crayfish trapping in the Red Cedar River with Kelly Smith. He's a grad student at Michigan State University.

“It’s pretty nice being a graduate student and studying something that you can eat, " he says with a laugh.

He’s kicking over rocks and scooping any crayfish he finds into his net.

“We got ourselves a native crayfish here. Looks like we’ve got a virile crayfish.  So, very closely related to rusty crayfish but they’re not quite as aggressive and not quite as good as fighting off the rusty crayfish from their resources.”

“This relaxation of the regulations is to allow for some limited harvest for, and I’ll call it consumption — but, really it’s for destruction — that’s the point, to get rid of them." — Nick Popoff, Michigan DNR official

Rusty crayfish are bullies. They have bigger claws and they pull native crayfish out of burrows and leave them to be eaten. Those big claws also help them get the girls. They win mates away from the native crayfish.

They take over the whole crayfish neighborhood and from there, they can reshape the food web in rivers.

Now, the rules have been loosened on rusty crayfish.

Nick Popoff, of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, says people who like to trap crayfish have been asking the DNR to let them keep rusties to eat.

“This relaxation of the regulations is to allow for some limited harvest for, and I’ll call it consumption — but, really it’s for destruction — that’s the point, to get rid of them. If someone wants to go enjoy a crayfish boil, then awesome. And then you’re helping the river to maybe recover a little bit.”

Still prohibited as baitfish

But fishermen still can’t use rusty crayfish as bait. And you can’t move them around, except if you’re taking them home in a bucket or net to eat them.

Popoff says there’s a fine line you walk when you let people harvest an invasive species.

“When you start promoting harvesting an invasive species, you could be promoting its further spread.,” he says.

He says if a conservation officer sees you have rusty crayfish and fishing gear, you’ll probably get fined.

Officials add new ban for live red swamp crayfish

Credit user: National Park Service / flickr
The red swamp crayfish, a Southern native, is now banned in Michigan. As a nonnative species it has invaded Japan, Hawaii and even the River Nile in Egypt.

There’s another kind of crayfish state officials are concerned about. It’s called the red swamp crayfish. If you’ve ever had a "crawfish boil" down south, that’s probably what you’re eating.

Nick Popoff says they haven’t found any evidence the red swamp crayfish are in the wild in Michigan yet. But he says they’ve learned fishermen are using them as bait. And the crayfish can burrow six feet into ponds and riverbanks and be hard to get rid of. So that’s why the state is now banning them.

Popoff says red swamp crayfish are popular in live food markets. Teachers sometimes use them in their classrooms. And you can order them online.

“You have someone with 100 pounds on their picnic table getting ready to boil them — you never know if one scurries away or a kid takes one to play with one in his pond. You never know!”

Now, buying and selling live red swamp crayfish is illegal in Michigan.

No more live shipments

David McGraw owns Louisiana Crawfish Company. He says they’ve been shipping live red swamp crayfish to Michigan for about 30 years. He hadn’t heard about Michigan’s new law.

“It’s surprising and it’s not.  We see a couple other states have done it. I would think it’s more politics, but that’s hard to say. Most people don’t respond to it well, " says McGraw.

But he says they’ll just have to start shipping cooked crayfish to Michigan instead.

There will be a phase-in period with the new crayfish law, but people who knowingly violate it could face fines up to $500,000.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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