Cape Town - crayfish

West Coast-South Africa


West Coast Crayfish

Cape Town and the West coast of the Cape Province are well known for their crayfish industry. Crayfish are found on the rocky seabeds and kelp beds along our coastline.Some live close inshore in cracks in rocks and in old jetties such as the one at Yzerfontein.

The West Coast crayfish has an interesting life-cycle and it takes from 7 to 10 years for a male crayfish to attain a catchable size of 65mm. Female crayfish may take up to 20 years to reach this size.

In days gone by the resource was plentiful but these days due to commercial exploitation it has become relatively scarce. There are reports that back in the times of Van Riebeeck that Hout Bay took on a red tinge because its bottom was carpeted with crayfish. If that is to be believed it is certainly not the case today.

In the 1800's crayfish were regarded as pests and when caught in the fishermen's nets they would simply toss them overboard again. Dead crayfish often washed up on the shores and wagon loads of them were collected and sold to farmers as fertiliser.

Back in the 1960's I can remember my late father selling a hundred crayfish for R10.00 to a wholesaler. That same catch would be worth in excess of R5000.00 today if prices in the local restaurants are anything to go by.

There are a number of methods to catch crayfish. The most popular for the recreational fisherman is to dive for them. Swimming around in the kelp beds and looking under submerged rocks to see a feeler sticking out is the way it is done. When spotted the diver must pin the crayfish from behind around its carapace to prevent himself from being injured by the sharp spines of the crayfish or getting his fingers caught under the flapping tail.

Ysterfontein jetty

Jetty at Ysterfontein

A crayfish walks forwards when on the seabed but when alarmed swims backward at speed by flapping its tail. An escaping cayfish is impossible to catch by hand.

Other methods and the one I used when a youngster was to have long pole with a two or three metres of nylon attached to it. At the end would be a piece of wire attached to the nylon with a number of limpets which had been chopped off the rocks threaded onto it and weighted with a sinker. You would then lower the limpets into a hole in the kelp standing on a rock as close as you could get to the kelp beds.

Every now and again you lifted the limpets to see if a crayfish had taken the bait. If there was a crayfish on the end of the line you would feel its weight and sometimes even its tug as it wrestled to get a limpet off your line. The trick to catch it was to lift the pole slowly bringing the crayfish to the surface so that it would not notice what was happening and then to slide your scoop net with its long handle under the crayfish and drop it into the net. Once in the net you simply lifted the net out of the water and you had your crayfish.

An old aunt of mine who was a real expert used a similar method except that she did away with the long pole. A longer piece of line was used and thrown out deeper into the kelp beds. When she felt a crayfish on her line she would wait for an incoming swell and pull the crayfish in a couple of metres with the swell After two or three swells the crayfish was at her feet still clinging to the bait and she would simply lift the bait and catch it and the crayfish in her short handled scoop net.

These days the knack of catching crayfish has been lost and most people use ringnets with fish heads as bait to catch them. The big problem with this method is that the nets often get stuck under rocks and become difficult to retrieve. Unfortunately due to the big commercial demand for crayfish the recreational fisherman has had his fun severely restricted.

Commercial fishermen get quotas and land thousands of seven to ten year old crayfish daily. The recreational fishermen is allowed a catch of four crayfish per day during a season of about four months. During the first two months he is allowed to catch crayfish daily and after the initial two months only on weekends and public holidays till the season ends and then only if he is in possession of a crayfish licence. It's a crying shame.

What once used to be a staple meal for fishing communities along the west coast has now been taken from them as they are also classed as recreational fishermen unless thay have been granted a small quota. The bulk of the crayfish catch is granted to fishing companies who export most of it to the USA and Japan. Restaurants purchase what is not exported at what appears to be export prices.

Due to the above prices in restaurants are exhorbitant and only people with large wallets or those with foreign currency in their pockets can afford to pay for them. As for the rest of us the taste of crayfish is a long forgotten memory.

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Crayfish 8.6.2023