Crayfish Poaching Has Fishermen Boiling, but Thieves Are Hard to Trap --- Once Overlooked, Lobster-Like Arthropods Are in Demand; Yabby Nabbing in Australia

August 19, 2009
The Wall Street Journal

Police in Colusa County, Calif., typically deal with routine crimes like methamphetamine possession and tractor-battery burglary. But come late August, they face a different scourge: crayfish theft.

To prepare for this year's anticipated crime spree, the sheriff's department in the rural area, about 120 miles north of San Francisco, is urging farmers to be vigilant. Sheriff's deputies drive their patrol cars more frequently than in other seasons down rutted country roads looking for suspicious characters prowling the rice paddies where crayfish are cultivated.

Crayfish poaching is "real prevalent," says Shane Maxey, a local sheriff's lieutenant. "You look for evidence, something you can put together a case with. Tire tracks, shoe tracks." Two summers ago, he says, crayfish theft got so out of hand that a man hired to guard crayfish traps fired a shotgun at a carload of people he thought were stealing the catch. No one was hurt, and Mr. Maxey ended up arresting the shooter.

Prompted by high crayfish prices and the rising popularity of the invertebrates, thieves have a growing incentive to pilfer crayfish, also known as crawfish, crawdads, crawdaddies and mudbugs. It's prime poaching season in California, where the creatures are fished from farmers' rice paddies in late August and September.

Law-enforcement officials here and elsewhere in the world are trying to get their pincers around the crime wave. In 2005, Louisiana, which is the country's biggest crayfish producer, passed a law establishing special penalties for crayfish larceny, including up to 10 years in prison with hard labor, plus stiffer penalties for repeat offenders. That same year, the state also created a 23-member Wild Caught Crawfish Task Force to help preserve native stocks from environmental threats and create fishery policies.

In Louisiana's St. Landry Parish, where crayfish are caught from local wetlands, Sheriff Bobby Guidroz says he has several reports of thefts each year. "A lot more goes on, but a lot of the fishermen don't report it," Mr. Guidroz says. "They want to dispense justice on their own." Several years ago, he says, a group of suspected crayfish thieves disappeared in a nearby parish, and people there believed angry crayfishermen "used them for bait."

In Australia, a government crime commission said last year that organized crime rings are increasingly poaching freshwater species, including a giant crayfish about the size of a small lobster, known as the "bass yabby." In September, the Frankston Magistrates' Court in Victoria, Australia, sentenced a man to six months in jail for illegally catching and stockpiling more than 3,800 yabbies. Another illegal yabby operation was busted in June. That same month, police on Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia traced a rash of break-ins back to people poaching marron, a crayfish that's even larger than the bass yabby.

"I guess it's not really surprising because they're worth about $25 a kilo," says Hamish Little, who manages a tree plantation on Kangaroo Island that reported the break-ins to local police.

In Idaho, the Fish and Game Department last year launched an investigation after getting a tip that a bar in Leadore (population: 90) was buying suspect crayfish. The trail led to poachers who were allegedly pulling 140 pounds of crayfish a night from a lake near Boise. "We believe this was an ongoing occurrence," says John Heggen, the state's Fish and Game enforcement chief. The thieves were eventually convicted of poaching, says assistant enforcement chief Chris Wright.

Crustacean fisheries have long had a reputation for lawlessness, in part because catches sit in traps for days, susceptible to thievery, and because the critters themselves are so pricey. Maine lobstermen and Alaska crabbers have been said to shoot at people who pull up their pots. In June, a San Diego Superior Court judge handed down a 90-day jail sentence to a man who was found smuggling contraband lobsters in his pants.

But crayfish historically scuttled beneath the radar of seafood filchers. While the diminutive creatures are prized in Sweden, certain Asian countries and Louisiana, they were often overlooked by shellfish aficionados in much of the U.S.

That changed in recent years as ballooning seafood prices prompted chefs to find alternative arthropods. "Locavore" restaurateurs sought native shellfish to cook, too: Randall Selland's $125-a-head Kitchen in Sacramento serves crayfish caught in nearby waters. "They're not going to have that briny taste that a lobster will because they're coming out of freshwater," says Mr. Selland. "They're very mild."

Hurricane damage to Louisiana crayfish farms has also driven prices up in certain years. Wholesale wild-caught crayfish sold for 88 cents a pound in Louisiana in 2007, compared with 52 cents in 1997, according to a study by the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center. Retail prices in the state earlier this year exceeded $4 a pound, more than double the price in recent years. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, revenue from U.S. farmed crayfish more than doubled to $96 million from 2005 to 2006, the last year for which data are available, even as production remained level.

All that cash has lured poachers, who law-enforcement officials lament are hard to catch. In Australia, crayfish thieves have become "more crafty" and have learned to carry only a small number of arthropods at a time, says Phil Shaw, south-region manager for the Western Australia Department of Fisheries. His agency and local police set up roadblocks and stakeouts of illegal traps to nab marron thieves. But "it's getting more and more difficult to catch them," he says.

Crayfishermen like Peter Malek in Seattle are going to greater lengths to prevent theft. At about 8:30 on a recent Friday morning, the 47-year-old idled the engine on his boat, the Borracho, about 30 feet from a shrubby bank on Lake Washington. He threw a grappling hook over the gunwale and blindly dredged the lake floor in hopes of snagging his hidden string of traps.

In the past, Mr. Malek simply attached buoys to his crayfish pots so he could easily find them. But as surely as the rotting herring in his traps draws crayfish, he found the buoys attracted poachers. So Mr. Malek, a former Alaskan crabber with broad shoulders and a thick mustache, began eschewing buoys several years ago. He also started affixing plastic labels with his name and contact information to the steel-mesh traps he builds. Still, he lost about 20 traps last summer, some to recreational boaters who accidentally hooked trap lines with their anchors. Several times, he found his traps emptied of crayfish and returned to the water baitless.

More recently, he got a call from someone in Winthrop, Wash., 200 miles east of Seattle, who found one of his stolen traps in a lake there, attached to someone else's traps. Mr. Malek didn't call police because it seemed a lost cause, he says. "For some reason, people don't see this as stealing," he says.

That's not the case in Colusa County, where District Attorney John Poyner says one perpetrator got a 90-day jail sentence for stealing crayfish several years ago. It's hard to convict crayfish thieves: They mostly come out at night and are hard to prosecute without a witness. But he's readying for the high poaching season. In the meantime, he says, he has other fish to fry: "We just got done with a sting on sturgeon."

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