Ecologists fear protected freshwater crayfish in south-east Queensland are being poached for food or sold as aquarium pets.
The Lamington Spiny Crayfish is only found on a handful of mountains in south-east Queensland and northern New South Wales, including the Lamington Plateau and McPherson Range.
Conservationist Ceris Ash, who lives at Springbrook on the Gold Coast hinterland, said she had encountered poachers numerous times.
“I’ve seen actually someone had an esky of about 15 of them,” she said.
“They just thought that they were like any other yabby, they could take them … take them home and stick them on the BBQ.
“There have been traps found in the creeks, where people have made homemade yabby traps.”
The long-term Springbrook resident said she lectured people whenever she caught them in the act.
Ms Ash suspected the vibrantly coloured invertebrates are either eaten or sold as pets.
“I am pretty sure there are people out there with them in aquariums,” she said.
Poaching crays for pets
Ecologist Clyde Wild said the species could grow up to 45 centimetres in length and weigh up to 1 kilogram.
“They’re very rare [at that size]. They’d be 40 or 50 years old probably by the time they reach that size,” Dr Wild said.
The former Professor of Environmental Biology at Griffith University said he had also witnessed poaching at Springbrook.
“I’ve seen another incidence of someone with five or six of them in a bucket and they were going to take them home and put them in their aquarium,” he said.
“They won’t live on the coast in a warm aquarium … they’re cold water specialists.”
The freshwater crayfish live in cold water streams above an altitude of 300 metres, and have been known to travel more than a kilometre over land between water sources.
“This is the most likely species to leave the water of any freshwater crayfish in the world and it actually makes the animal vulnerable to people and predators.”
But Dr Wild said their claws could do some damage to the unsuspecting.
“I’ve seen people with holes punched through their fingernails from trying to catch them the wrong way,” he said.
Threats to species’ long-term future
There are 135 species of freshwater crayfish in Australia and Dr Wild said the Lamington spiny crayfish was faring better than some other species.
“It’s actually doing quite well up here,” he said.
“Springbrook has regained a lot of vegetation over the last few decades.”
But Dr Wild said he was worried that the loss of larger crayfish would impact on the species’ long-term future.
“It’s the large ones that breed. They’re very slow growing,” he said.
“If the big ones are [taken] by poachers, the little ones might grow up and repopulate them, but they might get eaten by eels too.”
Vulnerable to predators
Dr Wild said the crayfish only survived in cold water streams with overhanging rainforest trees that provided leaves — their major source of food.
“We’re a bit concerned about climate change because they don’t like warm water,” he said.
“Studies which we’ve done have shown that the water at the warmest time of the year here comes within about 2 degrees Celsius of their maximum tolerable temperature.
“Above that they start losing their mechanical reactions, their defensive reactions. They’re much more vulnerable to bird predation.”
Ms Ash said there was a hierarchy among the animals that lived in the same stream.
“When they interact with another crayfish it’s ‘Am I going to fight you?’ and they size each other up,” she said.
“They’ve got so much character, they’ve got those big clippers that they put out in front of them.”
Protected by law
Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries has listed all freshwater spiny crayfish as a ‘no take’ species and there is a $522 on-the-spot fine for anyone caught poaching them.
A spokesperson from the Queensland Department of Environment and Science said there had been no reports of poaching inside the Springbrook National Park.
The maximum penalty for taking crayfish from inside a national park is $391,650 or two years’ imprisonment.