Crayfish the Invasive Species

cray DNR
Representatives from Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources were at the Cray Fest in Vicksburg to explain the vagaries of the crawfish invasion in Michigan. They are left to right: Joanne Foreman, Nic Popoff, Tyler Czarnopis.

By Sue Moore

There are many species of crayfish native to Michigan, biologist Nick Popoff from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources told the crowd at the Crayfish Festival at Sunset Lake Park in August. It’s the red swamp crayfish found in Vicksburg in July that is invasive that could hurt our $2.4 billion fishing industry, he said.

The red swamp variety is known in Cajun country of Louisiana as a delicacy, celebrated with a Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge, La. The town is a few miles from Lafayette, whose Travel Bureau sent a delegation to set up the Sunset Lake Park event.

In Michigan the shellfish can burrow into the lake shoreline and rivers, weakening dams, roads and other works, according to Joanne Foreman, who accompanied Popoff to Vicksburg. “They multiply quickly and travel easily between waterways. They have only been found in Sunset Lake and Novi, Michigan this July so it’s early in the study to determine where they came from,” Popoff said. “We are in a learning mode right now.”

Sean Suer from Lafayette told the audience he owns a 365-acre farm and raises crawfish in ponds as a commercial fishing business and to serve at his restaurant, The Cajun Table. “They have a rich taste and are tough to peel, much the same way you do a shrimp.” He and partner Lauren Liner started a food truck business in 2014 and opened the restaurant last March. They were invited to come along on this trip to Michigan because of their depth of knowledge about fishing and cooking crawfish.

“She’s the queen of etouffee,” remarked Suer in referring to Liner. The proof of that was in the samples of etouffee to the hungry onlookers. “It’s called a ‘smother’ recipe,” Liner said as she put the cover on her creation to let it cook down. She first made a roux on her huge thick-bottom pot, just eyeballing the quantities of butter and flour she put in the pot. “You can’t rush making a roux. Just listen to the pot and what it’s telling you.” She made the Trinity next which is a combination of onion, green peppers, celery and Cajun spices that she makes up herself. She added the seafood stock and let the pot cook down for several hours before adding the crayfish just before serving it on a bed of white rice. “It gets to the point where the neighbors start smelling it and come on over and share in the backyard fun,” she joked. By the way, it’s pronounced eh-too-FAY.

Guests came from as far away as Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Indianapolis. Many were sporting Louisiana t-shirts with Cajun sayings on them. Then there were the many whose houses border on Sunset Lake Park who were curious about the festivities. “People were calling us from all over asking how they could get on the bus to come to Michigan,” Liner said. “We had over 1,000 following our progress on the drive to Michigan.”

They traveled in a big Yukon GMC van and pulled a trailer behind with all the many tents they put up, their public-address system and electronic gear that added to the Cray Fest. “This was a heck of a lot smaller festival than the thousands who visit the Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge, but that one has been going on since 1960 and sports seven stages with music performances, a parade, tons of food and drink and lots of dancing in its three days of merrymaking,” Suer said. “We hope y’all will come visit us in May.”

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