Yabbies are a species of freshwater crayfish native to Australia. They are widespread to the west of the Great Dividing Range. There is evidence of yabbies being eaten at least 28,000 years ago by Aboriginal people, but the first record of them in colonial times was made by the explorer Thomas Mitchell during an expedition to northern New South Wales.
According to the records of the Horn expedition to Central Australia in 1894, the common name given to the creature by Indigenous people of the area was “yabber”. Other accounts have the spelling as “yabij”. It is thought that yabbies were translocated by nomadic Indigenous people from their original range in southeastern Australia to provide a food source.
Yabbies received their scientific name, Cherax destructor, in 1936, from a researcher at the National Museum in Melbourne, Ellen Clark. Clark was the daughter of the museum’s head entomologist and, at the age of 22, wrote the definitive monograph on Australia’s land and aquatic crayfish. Previously, the yabby had been known scientifically as either Parachaeraps bicarinatus or Astacopsis bicarinatus (as it was defined in Frederick McCoy’s 1880s publication: Natural History of Victoria: Prodromus of the Zoology of Victoria or Figures and Descriptions of the Living Species of All Classes of the Victorian Indigenous Animals).
The “destructor” part of the name came from the crustacean’s destructive habit of digging into the walls of channels and dams and the banks of creeks, causing them to collapse. Their ability to travel across the land to a new waterhole had earned them the popular name of “land crabs”.
It wasn’t long after Major Mitchell’s 1831 discovery that the yabby (even if not yet known by its popular moniker) made it onto the tables of colonists. A correspondent to the Southern Australian in 1839 wrote:
I wish…to call the attention of my brother colonists, particularly the poorer class, to one amongst other resources in the colony which is much neglected. I allude to the Cray Fish with which the Torrens abounds. I have lately heard of instances of ladies, for pastime, and children, catching as many as three and four dozen in an hour, and that by the simple process of bobbing with a piece of pork at the end of a string, yet I have never heard of these fish being introduced into the market or caught as a matter of trade….Twenty or thirty children fishing for an hour or two every day might supply the town with a delicacy and add a trifle each to the earnings of their parents.
Fishing for yabbies remained a largely personal pastime until the 1970s, when serious commercial fishing began, with several hundred tons a year being exported by 1975. The demands of the export trade led to over-fishing and by the late 1970s commercial yields had fallen to a tenth of their previous high.
Today, according to the Sydney Fish Market website, yabbies are caught commercially in NSW, Victoria and SA using baited pots and drop nets. Cherax.destructor is also farmed in NSW, SA, Victoria and WA. What is known as extensive farming is largely unregulated and simply means allowing yabbies to grow naturally in farm dams. In New South Wales, more intensive farming by commercial operations requires an aquaculture permit from NSW fisheries. There are a number of aquaculture businesses producing the crustaceans for restaurants and direct online sales, including one named, naturally, Yabby Dabba Doo.
Yabbies are traditionally cooked simply by boiling, although restaurants may fancy them up with sauces. They can also be used as you would prawns, but the flavour is more subtle and delicate.