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June 28, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Crayfish, crawfish, crawdads, little lobsters; they have many names, some official and some unofficial. Missourians can eat crayfish — this is the name we’ll stick with — until they’re red in the face, but beginning Sept. 1, fishers will no longer be able to buy them live for bait, another common use for crayfish.
The Missouri Department of Conservation says this regulation, which passed in August 2011 but is not yet actively enforced, is necessary to prevent the spread of crayfish to non-native waters because they can cause problems for crayfish naturally found in the surrounding ecosystem.
According to MDC, when a non-native species of crayfish is introduced to an ecosystem, it becomes an “invasive” species that can out-compete naturally found crayfish and game fish for food. They can also strip aquatic plant beds, which serve as spawning and nursery areas for a variety of fish species.
Currently, four species of live crayfish are allowed to be sold in Missouri. Although all four species are native to some parts of Missouri, none are naturally found throughout the entire state; this means all four can potentially be problematic.
However, the stores that rely on crayfish sales for a portion of their revenue could lose thousands of dollars because of this new law.
Joe Jerek, news services coordinator for MDC, acknowledges the challenges this regulation poses for some businesses in Missouri but says protecting the environment is MDC’s top priority. He also notes that by protecting game-fish populations, the ban is ultimately beneficial for Missouri companies. MDC has researched similar plans in other states, such as Maryland and Oregon, where bans on live crayfish bait have produced positive effects.
Some fishery workers and other stakeholders in this situation aren’t convinced the new rule is necessary and see it as an example of MDC over-regulating. Larry Cleveland, president and part owner of Ozark Fisheries, which he says will lose between $15,000 and $20,000 annually from this new rule, believes the ban will actually make the spread of non-native species of crayfish worse. He says when fishers are no longer able to buy locally, they will purchase crayfish from bordering states or online before fishing in Missouri waters. This act will further spread crayfish to areas where they aren’t naturally found.
According to Cleveland, there are reports from MDC that claim the financial impact of this ban will not exceed $500 annually. Kelly Smith of the Missouri Farm Bureau has also seen these reports, and he disagrees. “That’s so far off the mark, it’s just ludicrous,” he says. Cleveland used the numbers from MDC surveys of bait shops and fisheries to calculate that organizations could actually lose approximately $2.5 million annually.
But Cleveland says, in his opinion, it doesn’t matter what percentage of each business’ revenue comes from live crayfish. “What it really boils down to is, ‘is this really a good idea or not?”’ he says. “It goes back to the fact that they are taking away our freedoms, and we ought not to let that happen.”
In an effort to show MDC that the general public is opposed to this regulation, the Farm Bureau has placed a petition in several bait shops throughout Missouri. They received more than 5,100 signatures in the first two weeks. Smith says the Farm Bureau will collect signatures through July 4, and it will turn those in to MDC before the final decision is made at the MDC commission meeting in mid-July.
Adam Wolf, owner of Tombstone Tackle in Columbia, says although his establishment won’t be hurt significantly by this ban, he worries MDC could soon impose similar restrictions on other types of live bait such as goldfish, which make up a large percentage of his sales. “There’s a lot of people who have a lot more to lose over this than I do,” he says. “But if it starts here, where does it end?”