On Wednesday afternoon, a group of Alaska Department of Fish and Game employees waded into a swamp between Fourth and Fifth avenues in Kenai. Armed with fine mesh nets and chest waders, the four state workers scoured the area in search of crawfish, a lobster-like crustacean most people associate more with gumbo than tundra.
You could almost hear zydeco music playing the the background.
The state workers ended up in the swamp after a neighborhood resident reported Tuesday that he'd come across a live crawfish hiding there. Bob Pugh, who lives near the swamp, said Wednesday that he was out walking his dog when he noticed the unusual creature.
"We were just messing around, me and my dog, and that's when we found him," Pugh said.
After grabbing the somewhat lethargic but very alive crawfish, Pugh took the animal home and immediately reported his find to Fish and Game. Since crawfish are not native to Alaska, the department was a big skeptical at first.
"At first they didn't believe me," he said.
Once Pugh stopped by Fish and Game's offices between Kenai and Soldotna with his new pet, the biologists' skepticism turned to concern.
According to Tim McKinley, a sportfish biologist with the department, the state is very concerned with the chance that there could be more crawfish crawling around town.
"It's our mission to help preserve, maintain and enhance the fisheries around here, and this definitely doesn't fit with that," he said.
McKinley said after Pugh brought the critter in, biologists immediately went to work trying to figure out what they had on their hands.
"We sent a picture of it to experts in Louisiana and Florida to try and identify it for us," McKinley said.
Pugh, who is originally from Texas, said he's seen plenty of crawfish in his day. But the one he found is not only alive and well, it's also obviously well-fed.
Sandee Simons of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game uses a net to search for additional crawfish in the area where the one above was found.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"It looks like a miniature lobster," Pugh said of the 6- to 7-inch crawfish, which Pugh is keeping in an aquarium at his home.
McKinley said he's certain the animal is a crawfish, and the department is now trying to figure out how it got there, and more importantly, if there's more.
"What we're trying to do is see if there's more and kill the ones we find," he said.
If there are more, he said, it could be a potentially serious situation. Since crawfish would have few natural predators in Alaska and are adaptable to a number of environments, it's possible they could establish a foothold in the area.
"Crawfish are really tough critters," McKinley said.
Bob Piorkowski heads the state's invasive species program in Juneau. He said Wednesday that the danger of crawfish moving into Kenai is that they're known to eat just about anything, and could pose a major threat to native wildlife in the area.
"They're incredible vacuum cleaners," Piorkowski said. "They eat everything."
Although crawfish are normally found far south of Alaska, Piorkowski said it's entirely possible that certain types of the animal easily could find the peninsula a comfortable home.
"Some of them can live fairly far north," he said, pointing out that crawfish are known to live as far north as Vermont and Ontario places with climates similar to the Kenai Peninsula's.
Once crawfish do establish themselves in a system, Piorkowski said they can essentially take over the entire area.
"The biomass of a system can get to as high as 70 to 90 percent (crawfish)," he said.
This is not the first instance of invasive species coming to the peninsula. Fish and Game already maintains an extensive northern pike eradication program to curb the spread of the nonnative predators. So the area is no stranger to unwanted visitors, and in an area like Kenai which depends on its native salmon populations for tourism, commercial fishing and subsistence that could mean big trouble.
"It won't be the Kenai we know and love anymore," Piorkowski said.
He said this is not the first time crawfish have been reported in Alaska. Dead crawfish have been spotted in both Kodiak and Anchorage, but this is the first time a live specimen has been captured and brought to the state's attention. Until more are located, however, no one has any idea how widespread the problem is.
Piorkowski said he'd like anyone with any information on crawfish or any other invasive species in Alaska to call his toll-free hot line at (877) INVASIVE, or 468-2748.
McKinley said there is a chance that someone simply released a single crawfish into the swamp. If that's the case, he said he hopes whoever is responsible will come forward. Although it's illegal to bring nonnative species into Alaska waters, he said the department isn't so concerned about prosecuting any possible offenders.
"We're way more concerned with finding out what the deal is here," he said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the four Fish and Game employees who scoured the swamp had yet to find any signs of additional crawfish. Although the area is home to a beaver, some sticklebacks and even a few salmon smolt, no crawfish were found during the hunt which is exactly what everyone was hoping for.
As for the little guy who caused all the commotion, Bob Pugh's pet crawfish is getting comfortable in his new home: an aquarium Pugh set up in his classroom at Kenai Montessori School, where he teaches kids ages 2 to 12.
He's using the new find as a learning opportunity and is having his students do research as part of a class project.
Although Fish and Game would prefer to see any Alaska crawfish killed as soon as possible, this particular crawfish won't end up on anyone's dinner plate. In fact, Pugh said his students already have given the critter a name.
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