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The white-clawed crayfish (Austropotamobius pallipes) is an arthropod of olive-brown color, with pale-colored undersides. It lives in cold freshwater streams disconnected from the main water system. Since the crayfish is critically endangered, so are the games, fishing traditions, recipes, and other customs involving it in the Vall d’en Bas region of Catalonia, where it is known by the local name of cangreju.
It’s just one example of environmental changes resulting in cultural changes in the Vall d’en Bas. In the past few decades, residents have had to shift their perspectives on their surroundings.
“The environment was a space that we used, but as a farmer it did not concern me beyond that,” explains Joan Ayats.
Although this may have been the prevailing mentality, Maria Colom claimed her elders passed down an eco-consciousness about catching crayfish: “We kept the big ones. The little ones we let go so they would have a chance to grow and reproduce. Well, that’s how I was taught to fish them.”
During the day, the crayfish rest under rocks and tree roots. As children, the Salgueda sisters from Hostalets would go to a nearby stream and pass the time playing with crayfish, throwing pebbles into the water to make them come out from their hideouts.
Colom preferred fishing in the evening: “On summer evenings, we packed a snack and headed down to the creek to catch crayfish.” At dusk, the nocturnal crayfish come out to feed on organic matter and carrion.
“We would catch a snail and then crush it,” Joan Gelis explains. “We tied the snail to a string and attached a pebble so that it wouldn’t float. Then we threw it into the water—somewhere, of course, where we thought there would be cangrejus. When they bit, we put a net we had made under the string before we pulled them out. We invented the nets ourselves. We made them from some reed and wire, after we’d lost quite a few crayfish while trying to pull them up with the string.”
Back at home, the crayfish made a simple, colorful meal. “We put them in a frying pan, with a little olive oil and salt to taste,” Colom remembers. “Since they turned red once they were ready, we used to say ‘Look, shrimp!’” also smiles when remembering the color.
“Yes, yes,” Joan of Cal Casic agrees. “They were best when tender. They turned bright red and they were delicious!”
In the Iberian Peninsula, the white-clawed crayfish is classified as a vulnerable species, and they are not hard to find close to river sources. But in Catalonia and the Vall d’en Bas, it is now critically endangered.
Not so long ago, the white-clawed crayfish was commonly found in the streams, creeks, and rivers of the valley: in the Canal of Puig (in the Mateus Range), the Joanetes stream (in the Llancers Range and Puigsacalm-Bellmunt Range), the Gurn River (which flows through St. Privat), and even in the Fluvià River. Nowadays, they are exctinct in all the streams on the valley floor.
What caused this decline?
Although there are many reasons, human beings are a factor in all of them: fishing, the introduction of invasive species and the pathogens they carry, the destruction of habitats, and climate change.
Despite the fact that the community sought to catch them sustainably, fishing is the first cause of the current situation today. It affected especially the most vulnerable groups: those that were already low in number and would not be able to reproduce at the rate they were caught.
Secondly, humans brought in non-native species, like rainbow trout. As Joan Anglada of the Verntallat district explains, “Before, there were many, many, many crayfish. But then trout were introduced, and the population of crayfish decreased. Trout eat crayfish.”
When other invasive species such as red swamp crayfish and North American signal crayfish were introduced, they carried with them the crayfish plague. The native crayfish do not have any resistance to this infectious disease, and in some places in Europe, the mortality rate has reach one hundred percent.
“In addition, the rivers, streams, and creeks of the Vall d’en Bas started to become polluted,” Colom explains. Whether it was with cattle feces or in other ways, this contamination stressed the water system and, with it, the crayfish. Clearing forests to construct new roads near waterways has also contributed to the disappearance of aquatic habitats and the decline of the crayfish.
Finally, the reduction of rainfall and rise in temperature have taken their toll. The less it rains, the less water there is flowing in rivers, streams, and creeks, the less aquatic habitat there is available for crayfish.
“Little by little, the streams became dry, and that was it—it was over for the crayfish,” Colom laments. “Now, there are hardly any creeks left. There is almost no water. Before, there was water in abundance, and when it rained, all the kids went out to hunt snails.”
Today the crayfish population remains only in small streams, and it is now illegal to catch them. Their commercialization is prohibited in both Catalonia and Spain. Currently, Garrotxa Volcanic Park is breeding this species in captivity and releasing it back into the streams of the Vall d’en Bas in an attempt to replenish the population.
The future of the white-clawed crayfish is unknown, but the memories will remain: outings on summer evenings, around dusk, to catch cangreju. Grandmothers and mothers frying them up or cooking them with rice. The crayfish were the proof of an awesome adventure.
“If six kids went fishing, we could not go home with at least six,” Colom recalls. Laughing joyfully, she concludes, “There had to be one for each, because, otherwise, we would fight.”
Fernando Loras Orti is a biology master’s student at the Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo, studying biodiversity and conservation in tropical rain forests.