The crayfish food revolution: one man’s solution to an invasive species problem

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Posted Jun 26 2018 by Jessie Watson Brown of Nettleseed
'Crayfish Bob' displays an example of an invasive crayfish species

Bob Ring, or ‘Crayfish Bob’ shares his passion – an effective, and tasty, response to the damage the invasive crayfish species are doing to UK waterways and their native inhabitants.

Bob is a man on a mission – not just to remove as many American Signal crayfish which infest UK waters as he can, and put them into fine foods, but to also leave a legacy of trappers and legislation that makes sense, and has a real impact on reducing the number and the environmental impact of these invasive species.

It makes sense to me that if we are going to eat meat, then choosing not only a wild-caught animal, but one that is an invasive species causing problems for local wildlife and waterways would be a great place to start. So I spoke to Bob about the situation with crayfish in the UK, and what we can do about it… and of course how delicious they are!

American Signal crayfish are an invasive crayfish species here in the UK

American Signal crayfish – easily identifiable by the bright red underside of it’s claws

Back in the 1970’s the British government introduced the American Signal crayfish, with the idea of farming them as a lucrative business. A rather massive mistake as not only did it turn out to be a failed business venture, but the Signal crayfish rapidly populated waterways and out-competed the native crayfish. You can read Bob’s longer version of the story here.

Native UK crayfish populations are in a sorry state. Signal crayfish carry a disease, the ‘crayfish plague’ that is killing off the native crayfish. And the Signal crayfish outcompete with the natives, through more successful breeding, their bigger size and more varied diet. Not only do Signal crayfish have an impact on their native cousins, but they are causing erosion of riverbanks with their winter tunneling. Their unnaturally large population also affects other creatures, as they eat their way through fish eggs and molluscs too.

Crayfish Bob in his natural habitat

The invasive Signal crayfish, and the problems they cause span right the way across the UK. However, they are a great example of that old permaculture saying ‘the problem is the solution’. And Bob is one of the pioneers encouraging others to eat their way to the invasive crayfish solution. 15 years ago Bob set up his organisation Crayaway, which has raised public awareness and also removed many tonnes of American Signal crayfish from English waters.

Historically, crayfish have always been a delicacy, and the UK currently imports over 1,000 tonnes of crayfish tail meat from China (thats about 7,000 tonnes of crayfish caught to produce it)… so there is no doubt about the market for crayfish meat!

Bob inspects a crayfish trap from the river Thames

One challenge is that as awareness of the crayfish problem in the UK increases, so do sales of the Chinese imports – by well-meaning and misinformed consumers. Bob says it’s important we check where our crayfish are coming from. Any large retail outlets are going to be using Chinese crayfish tails. One to watch out for is that even if they say ‘produced in the UK’ they may still be imported and simply ‘flavour enhanced’ in the UK.

UK trapped crayfish tails sell for about 5 times the price of Chinese imports – due to the labour costs involved. So it seems if we are to have a thriving market for UK caught crayfish we need to expand the way we eat crayfish… looking to Scandinavia and the USA for inspiration. Through these influences, Bob has been holding massive, Louisiana-style ‘crayfish boils’ and other awareness-raising, taste-bud satisfying events throughout the UK. And now he is creating a food revolution – gumbo, escabeche, potted crayfish, Swedish-style crayfish in shell. In particular, meals that don’t waste a single part of this creature. Commonly people eat just the tails, but Bob is keen to stress that you can eat much more than that, and that some of the most tasty and nutritious parts are in the main body.

Traditional Louisiana Crayfish Boil

You can of course get out there and try trapping for yourself – our crayfish introductory page should get you started, with information on what you need, and how to legally and safely trap crayfish. You need a licence to trap crayfish, and want to make sure you aren’t harming any other wildlife as you do it – especially otters.

As a small-scale trapper you might not have a massive impact on the population of Signal crayfish in a river, due to the ease of re-population, but in a closed body of water such as a lake or pond you can have a real impact on population, and make a significant difference. Either way, you can obtain a nutritious wild protein source whilst having a positive impact on UK waterways and wildlife – what’s not to like?!