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Can’t beat ‘em? Eat ‘em! Berlin captures, cooks crayfish

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BERLIN — In the heart of Germany’s largest city, fisherman Klaus Hidde wades through the shallow ponds and creeks of Britzer Garten park shortly after dawn to check his 17 traps. The spoils are rich. As he shakes out the nets, hundreds of crayfish tumble into his basket.

The 63-year-old, whose family has fished for generations, is the spearhead of the city’s new effort to rid its waters of the invasive crustacean, putting him in the unlikely position of practicing his trade in the middle of the bustling capital.

“To catch crayfish some 500 metres away from the Brandenburg Gate, that’s quite sensational,” he mused, referring to the landmark next to Tiergarten park, where his other traps were set as he held up a 12-centimetre (4.7-inch) animal with two big claws.

Crayfish, indigenous to the southern U.S. and Mexico, were likely introduced into the German capital’s ecosystem a few years ago after aquarium pets were dumped into local rivers, but their population has boomed over the past two years after particularly mild winters.

The invasive animal, commonly known as Louisiana Crayfish, or procambarus clarkii in Latin, has been crowding out the native “Edelkrebs” crayfish population and has also introduced a fungus, commonly known as the crayfish plague, which has been harming the already-endangered German crustacean.

Last year, the city caught and destroyed 4,000 of the Louisiana Crayfish and introduced eels, a natural predator, to eat all they could, but still was unable to slow the onslaught.

Overwhelmed by the numbers and dismayed by the futility and waste of the crayfish cull, Berlin wildlife commissioner Derk Ehlert instead turned to the private sector. He granted Hidde an exclusive license to collect as many of the crustaceans as he could and sell them to local restaurants.

They’re catching on quickly at some of the city’s hippest venues and have acquired the nickname “Berlin lobster” for their bright red appearance when cooked.

“It is hard work and the meat pieces aren’t as big as with other crustaceans, but it’s a lot of fun,” said Mark Runge, a customer enjoying crayfish at a stall in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood’s trendy Market Hall No. 9. He described the taste as “somewhere between lobster and shrimp.”

“I would say this animal belongs on the plate because it’s an invasive species,” Runge said.

As crayfish started popping up downtown, urbanites started calling city officials, telling them about alleged “scorpions” and “shrimp” seen crawling across bike paths in Berlin’s lush Tiergarten park.

Photographers snapped pictures of auburn-colored crayfish in front of the Spanish embassy on the edge of the park as they raised their red-dotted claws up to the sky.

And when it rained, the animals became especially active, leaving their home ponds and migrating in small groups across city streets to yet-uninhabited rivers and lakes.

Following last year’s failed attempt to get rid of them, Ehlert said his office started looking into whether these crayfish were suitable for the dinner table.

“We carefully examined the animals regarding possible heavy metals,” Ehlert said.

Once experts determined the crayfish weren’t contaminated with any harmful substances, the city declared them suitable for consumption. Hidde then came out of early retirement to battle the American invaders.

“I thought it would be a good idea to help my son’s fishing business and make a few extra bucks getting the crayfish out of the water,” said the white-haired Berliner, wearing olive-green rubber fishing waders.

On a good day, he hauls in as many as 400 crayfish. He says he’s plucked 10,000 from the city’s waters this year so far.

In addition to his 17 traps in Britzer Garten in southwestern Berlin, he has another 12 traps in Tiergarten park.

“Eventually, I’m planning to sell the most beautiful ones for two or three euros ($2.35-$3.55) per piece,” Hidde said. For now, he only has a deal with a wholesale purchaser who buys the animals for 13 euros per kilogram (about $7 a pound) from him and then resells them at a Berlin gourmet market hall for 29 euros a kilogram ($15.50 per pound).

Hidde plans to sell the delicacy on sandwiches with mayonnaise and lemon juice at his own fish stand during concerts and festivals in Berlin this summer.

At Market Hall No. 9, fish stand owner Matthias Engels said the crayfish he has on crushed ice have piqued the interest of many customers.

“It’s the right product for people who like sustainability and regional food,” Engels said.

Still, it’s not clear how long Berlin’s crayfish culinary heyday will last, since the real point of the project is to eliminate the species from the city’s waters.

But from his experience so far, Ehlert said the crafty crustacean is likely to be around for a while.

“Obviously we are trying to get rid of the animals and in an isolated place, like an enclosed pond, the chances are pretty good,” he said. “But in places like Berlin’s Tiergarten, where there is a good flow of water, where the animals can migrate, it will be difficult to get rid of them permanently.”

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