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Ohio woman pleads guilty to selling invasive crayfish species across 36 states

By Oliver Milman
A mottled blue-gray colored crayfish with eggs below its tail is seen in an aquarium.
The invasive marbled crayfish was named an injurious species in a 2020 Ohio state rule. Photograph: MP cz/Shutterstock

They have claws, 10 legs, can produce hundreds of clones of themselves and have escaped from confinement to potentially run amok across the United States. The ecological threat posed by the marbled crayfish has now prompted prosecutors to wield invasive species laws in an attempt to curb the spread of the peripatetic crustaceans.

An Ohio woman who sold hundreds of marbled crayfish online has pleaded guilty to offenses under the Lacey Act, a US law preventing the transport of certain wildlife across state lines, after raising the crayfish in a huge tank in her home and selling them to people across 36 different states.

Allison Spaulding used eBay and Craigslist to sell various species of guppies and crayfish bred in her aquarium in Mount Vernon, Ohio and faces a maximum penalty of a year in prison and up to $100,000 in fines, although a federal judge is set to consider a lesser penalty under a plea deal.

The case is understood to be the first such enforcement action aimed at stemming the advance of the marbled crayfish, which has already exploded in huge numbers across countries as diverse as Germany and Madagascar. Wildlife officials fear the creature is now threatening to gain a claw hold in the US, where it is banned in several states but not nationally. Spaulding was prosecuted after Ohio introduced a state rule in 2020 naming the crayfish as an injurious species.

A clear plastic tub holds more than a dozen crayfish.
Wildlife officials fear the marbled crayfish is gaining hold as an invasive species in the US. Photograph: Courtesy of Ohio Department of Natural Resources

“We are trying to keep them off the landscape as they have the potential for serious environmental damage,” said Justus Nethero, wildlife investigator at the Ohio department of natural resources. “I hope this will be the springboard to this crayfish being federally listed as an invasive species, because these things have to start somewhere. I’d like to think this will change something.”

Nethero said he was “shocked” at the scale of Spaulding’s crayfish enterprise, which involved a 50-gallon tank of water with sand in it, filled with approximately 400 to 500 marbled crayfish. During a visit in May 2021 that Nethero said was cordial, investigators saw the tank. “Allison was very friendly,” he said. “This wasn’t like (the TV show) Cops. It was pretty smooth. We are talking about crayfish here, after all, not cocaine.”

Prosecutors allege that Spaulding was selling the crayfish via the internet at prices from $17 for two juveniles to $52 for a group of 40 crayfish to people who kept them in aquariums as pets or, due to their prodigious ability to clone themselves, as a reliable, self-perpetuating food source for other kept animals.

The species has spread across waterways in Europe as people have dumped them into rivers, lakes and toilets. Their tiny eggs can also inadvertently get washed down drains when emptying aquarium tanks, which Nethero said could be a pathway for the species to establish themselves in the US.

A glass aquarium, one side coated in algae, holds some sand, a few inches of muddy water and several crayfish.
Allison Spaulding sold various species of guppies and crayfish – including marbled crayfish – bred in her aquarium in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Photograph: Courtesy of Ohio Department of Natural Resources

The marbled crayfish, also known as marmokrebs, self-cloning, or virgin crayfish, is at first glance relatively unremarkable – measuring around five inches in length, sporting a reddish or blue mottled shell and surviving off an omnivorous diet of algae, plants and amphibians.

But the species is parthenogenetic, meaning that it can asexually reproduce itself. All known marbled crayfish are female – no males have been discovered – and each animal can lay up to 700 unfertilized eggs that develop into genetically identical offspring. This prodigious cloning ability allows the marbled crayfish to quickly dominate any aquatic ecosystem it finds itself in, outcompeting, or consuming, any native species already there.

Experts have compared the spread of the species to the way that cancer develops in the body. “This crayfish is a serious pest,” said Gerhard Scholtz, an evolutionary biologist at Humboldt University in Berlin. The origin of the crayfish is murky – it was first recognized at a pet fair in Germany in 1995 before escaping into the wild – but it is now banned from being kept or distributed within the European Union and several other places, such as Japan.

No such ban yet exists in the US, a country that is already grappling with the environmental impact of a raft of introduced species that have upended landscapes, from feral hogs to Asian carp.

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Dive Deeper:
First Thing: Senate blocks bill to codify abortion rights
After conservative Democrat Joe Manchin joins Republicans to vote against measure, majority leader Chuck Schumer warns ‘it will be open…
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Before you squash or poison the next slug or snail you see in your garden, consider this: The British Royal…
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Oil drilling in Canada’s boreal forest has altered interactions between wolves, caribou, bears, and other species
The Esoteric Social Movement Behind This Cycle’s Most Expensive House Race
Carrick Flynn follows a niche philosophy known as “effective altruism” that transformed the philanthropy world. Now it's coming for Washington.
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Russia-Ukraine war updates: peace talks harder ‘with each new Bucha’, says Zelenskiy - as it happened
UK signs security assurance declarations with Sweden and Finland; Ukraine leader says discovery of atrocities makes peace negotiations harder
Commentary: Outdoor cats are more dangerous than you think
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Get all your news in one place