Gone Crawfishin’

The domestication of Pacific whiteleg shrimp from the eastern Pacific Ocean by the United States Marine Shrimp Farming Program in the 1980’s had the reverse effect of domesticated plants such as corn, maygrass, pea, huckleberry, and others. The latter domesticated plants made life simpler, while shrimping appears to have only made it more complex. Although the domestication of plants and animals is a necessary stepping stone on the way to adequate food production and simple harvesting, the tale of shrimp domestication demonstrates the negative impacts of interfering with nature.

Shrimp Farm | Ithuba Shrimp Farm | United States
Ithuba Shrimp Farm of Florida.

The main goals of shrimp domestication programs in the United States and Latin America were to control supply and produce specific pathogen-free (SPF) shrimp. For a while SPF shrimp were a great solution, but around the 2000’s disease outbreaks swept through commercial shrimp farms in Central America, the US, and elsewhere. Farmers realized that genetically improved SPF shrimp could still develop disease over their lifetime if preventative measures and monitoring systems were not put in place to remove, prevent, or catch disease early and avoid mass mortalities in shrimp farm ponds. Even so, occasional disease outbreaks in commercial shrimp farms are inevitable.

Crawfishing is related to the domestication of shrimp because shrimp farming occupies valuable space along the coastlines, limiting access for fishing and trapping in nearby waters, and in some cases having adverse environmental impacts on wildlife. In Florida, locals are reasonably concerned about damages to mangroves due to shrimp farm construction and overflow of antibiotic and shrimp-waste-ridden effluent after heavy rains. According to Florida Administrative Code, aquafarmers are not required “to follow the effluent treatment BMPs [best management practices]” if they use “recirculation systems” or “do not discharge to waters of the state”. Florida deems effluent that is not discharged into state water to have “minimal impact on the surrounding environment”. Of course, bigger concerns like oil spills and the fertilizer-fueled Dead Zone along the Gulf divert attention away from whether or not people should be worried about large-scale shrimp farms. The pretty penny earned by the commercial shrimp industry and payback to the state through taxes and other means is probably another reason why the industry prevails despite environmental impacts.

Louisiana contains the largest commercial fishery in the United States and produces more pounds of seafood than any other state except Alaska. With more than seventy-seven thousand miles of shoreline according to NOAA and USGS, the people of Louisiana make a profit of 1.3 billion dollars each year from shrimp farming alone.

Seafood Stats, 2020

Crawfishing and other types of small-scale fishing depend on the delicate lever that balances intensive agriculture and environmental health. With the impact of waste, environmental degradation and destruction from agriculture, aquaculture, and oil building up along the coast, the ability of Indigenous peoples (e.g., Mississippi Band of Choctaw; Seminole & Miccosukee of Florida; Chitimacha, Coushatta Tribe, Jena Band of Choctaw, and Tunica-Biloxi of Louisiana) and others to be food sovereign becomes limited.

Cherokee Marsh Fishery Area, Dane County, WI. Map from WDNR.

Imagining the thick mangroves that would have provided a natural storm surge barrier along coastlines in Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi, and alternatives to commercial shrimp farming that would contribute to food sovereignty instead of restrict it, I decided to create my own simple wooden fish trap and also try my hand at crawfishing. That’s how I ended up toe-deep in cold muck, miserably attempting to catch crawfish over the weekend. Here I am in the photo below with my two cups in hand, excited to turn over rocks along the shore and corner crawfish before they can hightail it downstream. Earlier in the day I purchased my one-day fishing license for a nonresident of Wisconsin for ten dollars and eighteen cents from the DNR. Little did I know while planning this project that the stream bottom is barely visible through the sticky goop that covers the rocks. I spotted not a single living organism in the marsh or along the banks. No crawfish, no minnows, not even a frog (which are free to take without a license). I decided after venturing downstream for a few minutes that entering the water probably wasn’t a good idea – rainbow puddles of gasoline sat on top.

Gone crawfishing!

Cherokee Marsh Fishery Area was difficult to access. We parked, then hiked a quarter mile to the North on train tracks until we got to the creek to avoid entering private property. To the right and upstream of the creek was a farm with about ten cows sitting out in the sun. To the left was a dense wooded area, and just to the right of the three-car parking lot was a sign warning us to keep out. The creek drains into the Yahara River, then Lake Mendota, Lake Monona, Lake Waubesa, Mud Lake, and eventually Lake Kegonsa. Last year, Dane County of Madison began a four-year dredging project to clean up part of the Yahara River, and now I understand why. I hesitate to judge water on appearance because I know the clearest of lakes can host lethal bacteria, and the muddiest of waters can be just muddy. But the quiet hum of the creek, nearby farm, and layers of benthic made me wonder. Perhaps “fishery area” meant something different than what I thought it did. Recent flooding was a driver of the decision to dredge the Yahara River, but after rummaging through the muck in Cherokee Marsh I think managing runoff at the source needs to be part of the cleanup solution.

The fish trap went much more smoothly. Wooden fish traps can be used for passive fishing or crawfishing. Tribes that excelled at basket weaving can probably create amazing fish traps, because tightly woven wetland reeds help close the gaps and make good fish traps. Fish traps can be used in tandem with weirs, which lead the fish directly into them. Fish traps should be baited and once the wooden portion is finished, can be filled in with branches and leaves to seal holes and create a small entrance hole. The trap works by disorienting the fish so it stays in the trap until dinnertime.

Basket-weaving images from the Chitimacha and Coushatta Tribes of Louisiana.

Ultimately, fish trapping with wooden sticks is a method that has been long since replaced with metal traps. However, when the wooden fish trap gets swept away in a storm I won’t have to wonder which unfortunate marine organism got stuck inside. I can rest easy knowing my fish trap will come apart with ease. I can also literally rest because fish traps will do all the work for you. Although spear fishing would have been a far more high-yielding and food sovereignty-related endeavor, fish trapping is so simple that even a kid or generally non-equipment-savvy person like myself could do it.

Finally, I tried to find crawfish recipes so that I might demonstrate how fish trapping supports food sovereignty. But alas, there were few Indigenous recipes I could find. Crawfish tails are the main part that people eat and they offer a very humbling amount of meat. However, crawfish season is in the colder months when other kinds of food are probably sparse. One recipe that I did manage to find mentioned that crawfish could be thrown in the dying embers of a fire to cook, or boiled and paired with wild onion and leek. A much tastier alternative is one of the ten essential Native American recipes from Sean Sherman, founder and CEO of The Sioux Chef. The recipe takes just forty-five minutes and calls for crawfish, shrimp, sweet potato, onion, blackberries, dandelion greens (my mom’s favorite edible weed, oddly enough), sunflower oil, and spices. The seafood gets boiled and steamed, then the rest gets sautéed, boiled a little bit more, and drained. Voilà!

Sean Sherman's 10 Essential Native American Recipes - The New York Times
Image of Sean Sherman cooking up crawfish from the New York Times.

That’s all from me, hope you have a wonderful rest of your week! Jess

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