11/10/2017 07:00AM ● Published by Robert Frey
Gallery: When Mudbugs Make It To Michigan [13 Images] Click any image to expand.
When Mudbugs Make It To Michigan
By Hailey Hensgens Flemings
Here, in South Louisiana, we know crawfish. Ask any good Cajun and they’ll tell you it is one of the most anticipated “seasons” of the year – right along side football season, of course. And, when it comes down to the culture that makes us who we are, it is a word synonymous with zydeco, boudin and gumbo.
However, when our beloved mudbugs made their way 1,100 miles north to the village of Vicksburg, Michigan, the locals there did not share our sentiment. The red swamp crayfish, otherwise known as Louisiana crayfish, were deemed an invasive species after they were confirmed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to have infested Sunset Lake in Vicksburg as well as a retention pond in Novi. In late July, an advisory was released warning the public of their presence as well as the threat they pose to native species and local infrastructure.
When news of this Cajun “invasion” hit social media, it quickly went viral. Well-meaning locals left playful comments, like “Mais, boil some water” or “Set a trap!” The team at Lafayette Travel, otherwise known as the Lafayette Convention and Visitors center, took notice of what was happening and started brainstorming ways they could be of assistance. Within a week and a half their Vice President of Communications, Jesse Guidry, had put together a full-fledged, one-day festival in Michigan called Cray Day, which would tackle Michigan’s problem in a fun, playful way.
Three members of the Lafayette Travel team, along with Sean Suire, a local crawfisherman and chef at The Cajun Table, and his girlfriend, Lauren Liner, which he lovingly deemed the “etouffé queen,” made the 16 ½ hour trek to Vicksburg to host the educational festival on Saturday, August 19. The event was held at a park along crawfish infested Sunset Lake and guaranteed fun for the whole family featuring a story time reading of Clovis Crawfish, live music by Cajun band Sel de Terre, face painting, games, a movie screening of King Crawfish, and a scavenger hunt, which educated participants on crawfish and the industry we have here in Lafayette. Additionally, attendees enjoyed a panel discussion featuring “Crawfish: Friend or Foe” as well as a crawfish etouffé cooking demonstration and, of course, free samples.
For such a short period of time to plan, these Lafayette locals proved they could do what we do best in South Louisiana – put on a festival. Guidry says, “I just created a pop up festival that would be easy to implement with a limited number of people, but it would be interesting enough to keep people there all day.” His plans were certainly successful with a constant flow of patrons ranging from 150 to 200 in number throughout the afternoon.
Ben Berthelot, President and CEO of Lafayette Travel says, “It was a great opportunity for us to not only promote our area and our French cuisine, but also to lend a helping hand to the folks in Michigan that perceived this to be a real problem.” He explains they found a surprisingly willing partner in the Michigan DNR who thought the media attention could help raise awareness. Although the pop-up festival served to highlight the necessity of crawfish to Louisiana culture, it also helped the Michigan DNR educate their locals on the red swamp crayfish infestation and the problems it could cause.
Most of us in Acadiana cannot imagine a world where more crawfish could ever be a bad thing. However, for Michiganders, its presence in their lakes and waterways can have severe consequences. Nick Popoff, the Michigan DNR Aquatic Species and Regulatory Affairs Manager, says their concerns are really two-fold: a concern for their native species as well as for their infrastructure.
“They’re a very aggressive type of crayfish so when they get into new waters that have native crayfish they quickly outcompete them,” he explains. Additionally, the red swamp crayfish can burrow up to three feet deep, compromising the integrity of roads and bridges. “They burrow over winter and when the population is very large they can cause issues with infrastructure, like roads or dams. But, for us, it’s more concern for our culverts because we have a lot of water here in Michigan,” Popoff adds.
Furthermore, although they do not pose a direct threat to Michigan’s $7 billion sport fishing industry, Popoff explains they can set off a chain of events that could negatively impact it. Whether from interrupting the food chain, to cutting down grasses that serve as native fish habitats, to even drawing attention away from managing the profitable fishing industry, the invasion of Louisiana crayfish are a major problem - one he equates to the invasion of Nutria into Louisiana from South America.
Managing these very real concerns while also promoting the benefits of the crawfishing industry in Louisiana presented a particular challenge for the Lafayette organizers. Berthelot says, “Something we were very sensitive to is that we didn’t want to make this a laughing matter. We certainly recognized the sensitivity of it. To them it really is considered an invasive species, so that was the fine line we had to walk.” It was a line he believes they walked successfully. “It really was a ‘win-win’ from a promotional standpoint as well as a goodwill stand point and I’m really proud of our team for pulling it off,” he adds.
The results of Cray Day, which Guidry describes as a “coordinated educational effort,” were more than satisfactory to both parties, gaining the attention of nearly 3 million people and an ad value of a quarter of a million dollars for Lafayette Travel. Guidry says, “We achieved our mission and reached our goal while also helping them to reach theirs.” When asked what caused him to pursue the initial idea Guidry responds, “We’re just telling the stories of the people that are from here and getting it out there for a larger audience. That’s essentially what this event was designed to do.” Popoff was also satisfied with the results, stating Cray Day turned out to be a “really cool event” and commenting that the interest generated by social media was “excellent.” He jokingly continues, “I want to support Lafayette and I want people to go visit, but take the crayfish with you when you go!”
In addition to the benefits of media presence, Popoff and a few other Michigan DNR employees may benefit from a taste of that Cajun ingenuity. They intend to travel down to Lafayette during the next crawfish season to learn a little more about the way we handle the pesky mudbugs. Guidry explains, “We’re going to bring them to a couple farms, a processing plant, and a few restaurants during crawfish season to get a sense of how large an industry this is for us and potentially what they can do to either mitigate it or to help trap them.” Popoff remains hopeful these shared techniques may help contain the invasive red swamp crayfish, which have since expanded from 2 locations to 9, but adds, “I don’t know if that means we’re going to catch more, but we can definitely try it!”
Although the eradication of the invasive Louisiana crayfish may have been the reason for the visit, we Cajuns are proud of our heritage and it doesn’t take much to convince any one of us to share it. “Being able to take what makes us special and to bring that to other people. That’s why I think this thing took off like it did.” comments, Alex Labat, Director of Online Engagement at Lafayette Travel and a Cray Day organizer. “We’re natural born story tellers here, and ‘Cray Day’ is just one of a countless number of stories just waiting to be told.”