South African Produce

A case for crayfish

Reeling in the reality about the country’s most controversial crustacean

16 January 2020 - 09:04
By Georgia East
Crayfish ready to be prepared for the braai.
Image: Georgia East Crayfish ready to be prepared for the braai.

Whether cooked on the braai and liberally brushed with garlic butter or smothered in a creamy sauce, there’s no question that crayfish is a South African seafood favourite.

Which is probably why, even though the sepia-toned snapshots of the bacchanalia enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s have given way to red lists and the removal of crayfish from most menus, the demand for this costly crustacean has not abated.

The increased call for crayfish has seen the numbers of this slow-growing shellfish, particularly that of the west coast rock lobster (Jasus lalandii), drastically decline over the past three decades. Bloated quotas, unscrupulous government deals and illegal fishing have caused the unchecked looting of the west coast’s “red gold” — and the result is that Jasus lalandii has ended up on the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative’s (Sassi's) red list.

While aquaculture and marine farming have played a role in feeding the appetite for crayfish, and the use of east coast rock lobster (Panulirus homarus rubellus) has aided in alleviating the pressure on Jasus lalandii stocks, the west coast rock lobster has remained on the red list.

Food enthusiasts active in the promotion of the consumption of sustainable seafood have lambasted restaurants still serving crayfish, outing eateries on social media and making the public aware that eating crayfish is akin to taboo. But while the drive in promoting sustainable seafood consumption may come from a good place, it’s not always the best approach to the crayfish issue.

Small-scale fishers rely on their seasonal catch to make a living.
Image: Georgia East Small-scale fishers rely on their seasonal catch to make a living.

Small-scale fishers on the Cape west coast rely on the crayfish caught during season as a way to earn a livelihood — keeping their families fed and children clothed and in school. When consumers aren’t buying the crayfish, these communities go hungry, resulting in Jasus lalandii’s red list status becoming a socio-economic issue as much as it is an environmental one.

Fortunately there is a new way to consciously consume seafood. By focusing on responsibility as working hand-in-hand with sustainability, the Abalobi initiative has succeeded in educating the public about the benefits of supporting small-scale fishing communities on their bottom-up journey towards sustainability.

Fishers now collect data, channel their catch through traceable supply chains and highlight issues of illegal fishing in their area.

Says Abalobi CEO Serge Raemaekers: “Ultimately the [Abalobi] app is there to help small-scale fishermen rebuild their businesses through legally managed quota systems and the traceability and transparency that Abalobi provides. Many red-listed species are labelled so because there is a concern for over fishing including that done by a large informal/illegal sector – pointing to a need to rebuild fisheries with all stakeholders, starting with the fishers themselves. Abalobi aims to rekindle small-scale fishermen as stewards of our oceans, furthering awareness about responsible fishing using low-impact methods.”

Kobus van der Merwe of Wolfgat is among those who source crayfish from local fishers in the Paternoster area.
Image: Georgia East Kobus van der Merwe of Wolfgat is among those who source crayfish from local fishers in the Paternoster area.

This approach is also evident at Wolfgat in Paternoster, where chef-patron Kobus van der Merwe’s signature strandveldkos makes use of kreef purchased from local fishers with permits. Citing the issue with campaigns like Skip The Kreef not taking into account marginalised fishing communities, Van der Merwe explains that it’s the large commercial fisheries that have plundered crayfish stocks, catching out of season and with a disregard for size and quotas. The proceeds from crayfish caught by small-scale fishers with permits or purchased via Abalobi go directly to socio-economic improvement, as well as helping in the monitoring of crayfish stock levels.

“It’s important that we can once in a while taste kreef that’s been sourced through small-scale fishermen and initiatives like Abalobi, that supports the ecological and the human side of the story,” says Van der Merwe.

While this is by no means a licence to go out and buy up crayfish in abundance, it does give would-be crayfish consumers food for thought — rather than looking at what you’re eating, concentrate on who caught it.

And if you are able to buy crayfish from a local fisher, here's an excellent way to cook it.

Whole braaiied crayfish with kapokbos butter.
Image: Georgia East Whole braaiied crayfish with kapokbos butter.


Crayfish over the coals.
Image: Georgia East Crayfish over the coals.

Kapokbos or wild rosemary (Eriocephalus africanus) grows in abundance along the Cape west coast and lends a gentle fragrance and savoury flavour to garlic butter.

Serves: 4


4 large crayfish

250g salted butter

2 sprigs of kapokbos or rosemary, finely chopped

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly smashed

1-2 chillies, finely chopped

Coarsely ground sea salt, to taste


1. Dispatch the crayfish with a sharp blade to the head or by drowning them in fresh water. Split each crayfish lengthways down the body and remove the alimentary canal from the tail. (If preferred, you can also scoop out the stomach sac and the porridgy yellow viscera in the head, though some people find these a particular treat.)

2. Combine all the ingredients for the butter in a small saucepan and place on the braai grid, over the coals, to warm through. When bubbling, baste the crayfish liberally in the butter, cooking them flesh-side down over medium heat for about 3-4 minutes or until lightly browned.

3. Move the grid to a medium to low heat and continue to cook the crayfish, now turned over on to their shells, for a further 15 minutes, not forgetting to baste continuously.

4. Serve immediately with a flinty west coast white, such as Fryer’s Cove Bamboes Bay Sauvignon Blanc.