KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For 32 years, Mark Hill has been dipping crawdads out of his tanks at Forty Woods Bait and Tackle near Lake Jacomo and filling fishermen’s bait buckets.
But those days may soon be over.
The Missouri Department of Conservation has adopted a regulation that would ban the importation, purchase or sale of live crayfish, a measure designed to reduce the spread of invasive species. By moving even a crawdad that is native to Missouri from its restrictive home range to another part of the state, there is a potential for trouble, fisheries biologists say.
But Hill and many others question that science. They have been selling crawdads for years and have never heard of any disastrous impacts on the resource. Why the big concern now? Bait dealers, shop owners and fishermen are calling it overreaction.
They have gathered thousands of signatures on petitions across the state, asking the Department of Conservation to reconsider. And the state agency appears to be listening, pushing back the implementation date of the regulation until a working group consisting of fisheries officials, bait dealers, bait shop owners and fishermen can meet and try to hammer out differences.
Meanwhile, the debate continues.
“We just feel this is over-management,” said Hill, whose shop is located at the intersection of U.S. 40 and Woods Chapel Road. “To stop the sale of crawdads based on the potential of what could happen doesn’t make much sense to me.
“And our biggest concern is: Where does this end? It started when they made us stop selling waterdogs. What’s next? Goldfish and night crawlers aren’t native species to Missouri. Are they going to call them invasive species and stop us from selling them, too?”
Hill said that he and his co-owners at Forty Woods sell about 10 pounds of crawdads a week. That’s not enough to make or break their business. “It’s probably about 5 percent of our bait sales,” Hill said. “But it would be lost revenue.”
The Department of Conservation says it isn’t taking those considerations lightly. But it also thinks a move such as this one may be necessary to safeguard fisheries.
Under the provision, fishermen would still be able to capture their own crawdads from streams and lakes and use them for bait. And the regulation would allow the sale of crawdads for human consumption, scientific research or as food for confined animals. But it would ban the sale of crawdads for fishing bait.
“Crayfish have specific ranges,” said Bob DiStefano, a resource scientist for the Department of Conservation. “For many of them, those ranges aren’t very large.
“When those species are removed from their native range and introduced somewhere else, they can become overabundant and compete with native crayfish. That’s where the problems can occur.
“Just because a crayfish is native to Missouri doesn’t mean that its home range is the entire state. It might be limited to one small area.
“Take it out of that area, and it can cause problems.”
The Department of Conservation is concerned that many of those transfers of crawdads from one part of the state to another may result from fishermen. A study showed that 40 percent of fishermen dump their leftover live bait into the water once they are done fishing.
DiStefano said the study of invasive crawdads is still relatively new in Missouri. “Prior to the 1980s, we didn’t know much about crawdads,” he said. “We’re just getting started documenting the problems.”
In other states, such as Wisconsin, fisheries officials have documented what can happen when an invasive species of crayfish crowds out native species. They can destroy fish habitat, overcompete with native crawdad species and alter the environment.
DiStefano said there already have been 25 crayfish “invasions” in Missouri, though it’s still too early to tell how major their effects will be.
“This is mostly a preventative measure,” DiStefano said. “We want to get ahead of the curve before it becomes a major problem here.”
Critics disagree with that strategy. They say there is no proof that the worst-case scenario will ever develop in Missouri. They say the Department of Conservation is being overly cautious, and that approach will affect everyone from the bait shops to the fishermen who are accustomed to buying crawdads.
“I don’t believe this is justified at all,” said Randy Welpman, part owner of the Missouri Goldfish Hatchery near Stover, Mo., one of the state’s major distributors of crawdads. “They (the Department of Conservation) makes it sound like this is a terrible situation, but it isn’t.
“Right now, I don’t think there have been enough surveys done to document what they are saying could happen. I think we need to do more research before we jump into this and affect people’s lives.
“I think the river otter is having a far greater impact on crawdads than invasive species. And the Department of Conservation was the one that introduced the river otter.”
The Department of Conservation started stocking river otters in Missouri in the early 1980s, and they quickly adapted to the state. In fact, they became so abundant that ranchers began complaining about otters devastating fish populations in ponds and stretches of Ozark streams.
In Welpman’s case, it was crawdads that were preyed upon. He believes the otters took a heavy toll on his the crawdad population in his rearing ponds.
“Prior to 1990, we grossed as much as $43,000 selling crawdads one year,” Welpman said. “Last year, we sold $5,000 worth. But it’s the otters, not the invasive crawdads that are causing the problems. We could see crawdad pinchers in the scat the otters left behind.”
The Department of Conservation concedes that the otters have caused damage. But it thinks the invasive crawdads are a much bigger concern.
“The world is a lot smaller than it was even a few decades ago,” DiStefano said. “In the past, we didn’t have to worry as much about the introduction of exotic species. But those days are gone.”
©2012 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)