The spiny rock lobster, ‘red’ crayfish or kōura — scientific name Jasus edwardsii — are a large species of lobster found along the coasts of New Zealand, the Chatham Islands and Australia. Renowned for their good eating, red crayfish are exported overseas, both live and frozen, where they fetch a pretty penny. Due to their popularity and heavy fishing during earlier decades, crayfish are now subject to strict commercial and recreational limits.
New Zealand crayfish
Not to be confused with New Zealand’s less common (but larger) saltwater crayfish, the olive coloured ‘packhorse’ cray, the spiny rock is red-orange in colour with a yellowish underbelly. Found within rocky coastline caves, cracks and outcrops down to a depth of 250m, red crayfish reach about 50cm in size and are a much sought after diving species. While most confine their activity to a 5km radius, travel can vary based on sex, life-cycle and food availability; some crays have been recorded travelling distances of up to 460km.
Crayfish have an interesting lifecycle that involves an offshore-planktonic phase as well as a migration and onshore-maturing phase. During the planktonic phase, hatched larvae travel long distances out to sea where they undergo moulting (the growing and shedding of skin). Over the course of 12-22 months, cray larvae moult 17 times before reaching the ‘puerulus’ stage, at which point they swim back to shore. Upon settling into shallow waters the puerulus moults again, revealing a tiny juvenile crayfish. As juvenile crays grow they begin sharing day-time dens with like-sized individuals before reaching sexual maturity after about 4 years.
Catching guidelines, methods and locations
Crayfish can be gathered one of two ways in New Zealand: using baited pots, or hand-caught while diving. In both cases, the animal should be retrieved with care to avoid any unnecessary physical harm or stress — i.e. avoid grasping at legs and antennae. To ensure sustainability, cray fishing is governed by legal minimum size, maximum daily limit, allowable methods and additional rules covering point of life-cycle. It’s important to familiarise yourself with local fishing bylaws, as different fishing regions have different rules. General guidelines are as follows:
Crayfish minimum size
Measure the tail width in a straight line, between the tips of the two large (primary) spines on the second segment of the tail.
•The minimum measurement for males is 54mm.
•The minimum measurement for females is 60mm.
•If you're not sure what sex the lobster is, use the 60mm measurement.
Daily bag limits
Maximum of 3 red rock lobster
Banned gathering methods
•You cannot possess rock lobster seaward of the high watermark in an unmeasurable state.
•No spring-loaded loops or lassos – hand operated only.
•No spears or puncturing devices – it is an offence to possess a speared rock lobster.
•Do not remove external eggs from any rock lobster.
•No baited nets.
•Maximum of 3 rock lobster pots per fisher.
•Maximum of 6 rock lobster pots from a vessel for 2 or more fishers.
You cannot take:
•female rock lobster “in berry” carrying external eggs
•soft shell stage rock lobster (rock lobster that has shed its skin)
•unmeasurable rock lobster (like if its tail is damaged)
Nocturnal, crayfish spend most of the day hidden from predators, before leaving to scavenge for food along the seafloor at night. Favourite hiding spots include jagged inner shore reefs and submerged rock shelves. Kelp and current offer clues to crayfish whereabouts, where Kelp is a food source for many things that end up in a cray stomach, current helps bring these creatures into cray feeding grounds. In terms of depth, every spot is different; some crayfish reside in as little as 2m of water and are easily accessible to those learning how to free dive.
Price of crayfish
With their delicate and mildly sweet flavour — New Zealand crayfish are considered a delicacy at home and a luxury abroad. Export prices per kilo usually range between $80 - $140 per kg or more depending on demand and seasonality. Onshore prices vary according to where the crayfish is derived, as this governs overall taste, texture and quality. Typically, those from the Chatham Islands and Fiordland fetch premium prices.
How people eat crayfish
Crayfish are eaten all over the world and enjoyed in a variety of ways. New Zealanders and Australians have a penchant for barbequed crayfish, where butter, garlic and salt reign supreme. In China crayfish are wok-fried with noodles, or steamed and served whole to show off their red hue — which is considered lucky. Meanwhile, in the U.S., ‘lobster’ is enjoyed the ‘Cajun’ way, boiled with heavy seasoning and accompanied by sausage, vegetables and beer. With its mild, complementary flavour and soft texture, crayfish is a truly universal seafood!