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Berlin’s crayfish explosion

A crustacean invasion has put ultra-local, ultra-sustainable shellfish on the menu and created a media feeding frenzy. But will Berliners bite?

Image for Berlin's crayfish explosion

The crayfish have made it onto the menu of Berlin restaurants and are sold at Markthalle IX. Photo by Anastasia Chistyakova

A crustacean invasion has put ultra-local, ultra-sustainable shellfish on the menu and created a media feeding frenzy. But will Berliners bite?

The invaders made their presence known last summer. They appeared on the paths of Tiergarten, waving their claws in the air as they scuttled between the Landwehr Canal and Neuer See. In Louisiana, it would have been a common enough sight. Here, it made national headlines.

How and when American swamp crayfish – Procambarus clarkii, or roter amerikanischer Sumpfkrebs in German – first entered Berlin’s ecosystem is unknown. The best guess is that they were purchased as aquarium pets and released into the wild when their owners got bored of them. Derk Ehlert, the city’s indefatigable Wildlife Officer, doesn’t find it useful to speculate. “All we know is they didn’t walk here from the Mississippi Delta by themselves.”

In fact, they likely lurked around Berlin for years before the recent mild winters, combined with last summer’s heavy rains, created the perfect conditions for them to expand their territory to Tiergarten and Britzer Garten. Photos of the crayfish started circulating on social media and Deutsche Welle published a bemused report on the “marauding crustaceans”. But where the internet saw a cute story, Ehlert saw an emergency.

“As an invasive species, the crayfish are dangerous for two reasons,” begins Ehlert, who as Wildlife and Hunting Officer of the Senate Department for Urban Development is also responsible for keeping Berlin’s fox, wild boar and raccoon populations under control. “First, they carry the Krebspest, a fungus that kills native German crayfish but which they’re immune to themselves. Second, they harbour bacteria that can spread to amphibians and reptiles. They’re a threat to ecological diversity.”

His first strategy was to release eels, a natural predator, into Tiergarten’s waters. When they failed to have an impact, he had the state Fischereiamt put out their own nets, just to see what kind of numbers they were dealing with. “Between August and September, we caught 4000 of them,” Ehlert says, still sounding a little dazed. “So all winter, we thought about what we could do next.”

To get rid of the crayfish, Berliners had to eat them. All They had to do was find the right fisherman.

Eventually, his office came to a solution that could have easily been reached by any Louisiana native: to get rid of the crayfish, Berliners had to eat them. All Ehlert had to do was find the right fisherman.

To pick up a live crayfish without getting pinched, you’ve got to hold it by the carapace right behind the claws, and that’s what 63-year-old fisherman Klaus Hidde does to a particularly feisty male in Britzer Garten. He has had practice. Since the beginning of May, when he and Ehlert held a press conference to announce his appointment as Berlin’s official crayfish catcher, Hidde has been deluged with interview requests. We’re his second of the day behind a TV crew from China, where American swamp crayfish aka xiaolongxia are also an invasive species – and a hugely popular delicacy.

In February, after the Berlin crayfish had been extensively tested for contamination and come back clean, Ehlert contacted the city’s handful of commercial fishermen with an offer: catch as many crayfish as you can handle and they’re yours to sell, as long as you report their numbers to us. Hidde, an ex-banker from a centuries-old fishing family in the Spandau-adjacent village of Tiefwerder, was the only one to take him up on it.

“When I started fishing at age 15, I used to catch the German crayfish, but now they’re almost gone,” he recalls. “You can put a net in the Havel for three weeks and you’ll get maybe 40 of them.” By contrast, his first net in Tiergarten filled with 600 of the American specimens in three days.

Today’s haul, from one of the 17 nets laid out in Britzer Garten’s shallow lake, is comparatively tiny – about a dozen – but it hasn’t been that long since Hidde last checked. He empties them into a plastic tub, and they scrabble around furiously. Crayfish are voracious predators: they eat fish, insects, even each other. They can survive on land for days at a time, covering distances of up to 5km. And they’re smart. “They’re starting to realise there are nets here,” says Hidde ominously.

His son still runs the family business up in Spandau, catching and selling Havel eel, perch and pike. Meanwhile, Hidde makes the crayfish rounds two or three days a week, when he’s not replacing equipment (two of his Tiergarten nets were stolen at the end of May), reporting yields to the Fischereiamt or manning his long-running fish stand at Zitadelle Spandau. Is it worth it? “Well, yes, you can make a pretty good business out of it,” says Hidde. Which raises another question: where are all the crayfish going?

Around the time of the May press conference, Berliner Tiergarten-Krebs quietly appeared on the menu of the 30-year-old restaurant Fisch Frank in Tiergarten. Hidde and his son, who had long supplied proprietor Olaf Pelz with local fish, offered him first crack at this new delicacy, and he gladly accepted.

He boils Hidde’s crayfish in broth and serves them chilled with a remoulade-like dip, bread and salad. How well does it sell? “I’d say about 100 a day.” A hundred portions? “A hundred crayfish.”

Here it must be said that the practice of eating crayfish is not for the faint of heart. You’ve got to twist apart the two halves of the shell and rip open the tail to get at a tiny forkful of meat. If you’re feeling hardcore, you suck the orange goop out of the head – which isn’t the “brains”, but rather a liver-like organ called the hepatopancreas. By the end your plate will be a graveyard of carapaces, legs, pincers and eyestalks, and you’ll probably still be hungry.

Sociologists point to the handsy process as the reason for crayfish’s exploding popularity among Chinese millennials: finally, a meal that requires you to put down your smartphone. Berliners, however, have yet to catch on. “It’s like eating a whole fish – it’s not for everyone,” Pelz says. “Yes, a lot of customers have been curious about the crayfish, but only about one or two percent actually order them.”

Hidde tried selling to a few other restaurants, with little success. “I called all the Americans, but there was the language barrier…” The lion’s share of his bounty now goes to two wholesalers: a Chinese enterprise that distributes the xiaolongxia to undisclosed restaurants within Europe, and locavore ground zero Markthalle IX.

There, Matthias and Susanne Engels of fish stand 25 Teiche sell Hidde’s crayfish alongside their own farmed trout and sturgeon. Like Hidde, they’ve become used to press visits by now. “I used to work in media, I get it. They’re red and pretty,” says Susanne Engels as a ZDF crew films her husband arranging some “Berlin lobster” on ice.

These are less lively than the ones we saw in Britz, possibly due to having been boiled to death the day before. “It’s illegal to sell them live unless it’s to a restaurant,” Engels explains. “You don’t see live pigs sold here, do you? People might not know how to kill them properly.” That privilege is saved for chefs at the Michelin-starred restaurants Weinbar Rutz and Charlotte & Fritz (formerly Fischers Fritz), and for German craft brewer and New Orleans lover Thomas Wiestner, who is planning a Louisiana-style crayfish boil at the Markthalle in July.

Which brings us to the million-euro David Foster Wallace question: no, crayfish don’t experience suffering the way humans do, but yes, given the choice – as in the recent viral video of the fellow that cut his own claw off to escape a pot of soup – they would prefer not to be boiled alive, thanks. Does that put an ethical crimp in eating this otherwise ultra-ethical food? Considering Ehlert and co. were boiling and throwing out crayfish by the thousands before Hidde came along, probably not.

The current crayfish season lasts until November, after which Ehlert will again take stock of the situation. “Maybe we’ll give out more permits,” he says. (As it stands, it’s illegal for anyone who is not Hidde to catch the crustaceans.) “It depends on how things go this year, and how many of them are out there. Right now, we just don’t know.”

This isn’t entirely true. Ehlert and Hidde have determined that by July, they’ll have caught their ten-thousandth crayfish. “And last year, we saw most of them in August and September,” Hidde points out. In Britz, he cheerfully tells passersby he’s on a mission to fish the roter amerikanischer Sumpfkrebs out of existence; privately, he has his doubts. “It could be that by catching some of them we’re just making room for the others to breed.”

In other words, don’t be surprised if “Berlin lobster” becomes a permanent menu fixture. Luckily for us, it also happens to be delicious. “I used to serve the German crayfish when I could get them, and these are almost the same,” says Olaf Pelz of Fisch Frank. “It’s not very patriotic to say this, but I think they taste better.”

Image for Berlin's crayfish explosion

Photo by Anastasia Chistyakova

Crayfish destinations

Zitadelle Spandau: Look for Klaus Hidde’s fish stand at summer concerts, where he’s selling crayfish wraps (€5.50) alongside the usual Fischbrötchen. / Am Juliusturm 64, Spandau, concert schedule at citadel-music-festival.de

Fisch Frank: Chef Olaf Pelz serves an appetizer-sized plate of Berliner Tiergarten-Krebse with sliced baguette, salad and dipping sauce (€9.99). / Charlottenstr. 7, Spandau, Mon-Sat 11-20

Markthalle IX: Buy crayfish by the kilo at 25 Teiche (€29) or wait for the big crayfish boil on July 14, 19:00. / Eisenbahnstr. 42-43, Kreuzberg, Thu 17-22, Fri 12-18, Sat 10-18