A crew including a chef who farms crawfish left Lafayette, Louisiana, on Thursday morning for a 1,000-mile drive north to Vicksburg — a village of about 3,000 near Kalamazoo and the first spot in Michigan where red swamp crawfish were found.
Since people outside the Gulf Coast call the tiny lobster-like critters "crayfish," Saturday's festival is called "Cray Day." It was put together with help from Michigan's Department of Natural Resources and Sel de Terre, a Cajun band from the Ann Arbor area — about 100 miles east of Vicksburg.
Festival organizers in Lafayette, about 115 miles west of New Orleans, were amused at first to think of crawfish as dangerous, said Ben Berthelet, president and CEO of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission. Then they learned just how much damage the critters can do outside their natural habitat: undermining docks and dams with burrows up to 3 feet deep, killing aquatic plants and outcompeting smaller native crawfish.
"It went from locals seeing the humor to us really partnering with them and understanding the problem they're having — how can we help? — and at the same time exposing our area, our cuisine to them," said Berthelot.
Nick Popoff, aquatic species and regulatory affairs manager for the Michigan department, said he was nervous at first about the idea of the festival: "You never want to highlight the positive aspects of an invasive species, because it could lead to further introductions."
Now, he said, he sees it as a chance to learn more about the species and to teach more people about the threats they present in Michigan.
"We've heard a lot of feedback — why do you care, why don't you just eat 'em, et cetera," he said. "It's important we recognize their importance to Louisiana but also the importance of keeping these critters from spreading in Michigan."
He and chef Sean Suire of The Cajun Table restaurant in Lafayette will be among those discussing "Crawfish: Friend or Foe" at a panel Saturday. The day-long festival also will include storytime with the picture book "Clovis Crawfish" and a scavenger hunt for kids, bean-bag toss and other games for adults, a movie about the crawfish business and a cooking demonstration and crawfish etouffe tasting.
Berthelot said the first plan was for a crawfish boil. "Then we found out it was illegal for us to have live crawfish in Michigan," Berthelot said.
It would be illegal to bring live crawfish into Michigan, and it's illegal to move them from place to place within the state, Popoff clarified.
For instance, he said, someone who had legal access to the 1-acre private retention pond in Novi, a Detroit suburb where red swamp crawfish also have been found, could legally boil them right there but couldn't take them home to cook.
However, people who find them in other spots should take them home and freeze them so DNR can verify the sighting, Popoff said.
The crawfish population is much denser in Novi, where DNR traps caught about 2,500 in two weeks and local residents have reported finding the species elsewhere, than in Vicksburg's 97-acre Sunset Lake, where 70 traps left overnight caught about 15 crawfish, Popoff said.
"Likely there has been spread in the Detroit area. We just haven't confirmed it yet," Popoff said.