Crayfish Go On The Menu To Restore Lake Tahoe's Blue Hue

Aug 14, 2012
Originally published on October 22, 2012 9:30 am

Around the country, environmentalists are cooking up ways to battle invasive species by serving them up on a platter.

Over in the mid-Atlantic, they're broiling up the snakeheads that have taken over local lakes and rivers. In the Southeastern U.S., they're writing cookbooks to inspire gourmands to get coral reef-destroying lionfish out of the waters and into the frying pan. Now, Lake Tahoe is getting into the act.

Last month, the state of Nevada gave business entrepreneur Fred Jackson the green light to harvest crayfish in Lake Tahoe. It's the first time since the 1930s that commercial fishing has been allowed in the lake. Jackson's venture is small, but the hope is that it will keep the lake clear of algae — and provide a local dish for area visitors.

Scientists estimate Lake Tahoe is home to around 300 million crayfish. The crustaceans graze on algae at the bottom of the lake — they're "like cattle in the landscape," says Sudeep Chandra, a freshwater biologist at the University of Nevada, Reno. Algae cloud the lake waters — but the crayfish only make matters worse by eating them, Chandra says.

"They can graze some algae down, but when they excrete nutrients, they can stimulate algal production," he says.

As The New York Times points out, crayfish were introduced to Lake Tahoe more than a century ago. Over time, they've contributed to algae growth that's diminished the clarity of Lake Tahoe's storied clear blue waters. It's a major concern for state and regional environmental agencies.

Because reducing the crayfish population will help clean up the lake, Jackson's business venture has received virtually no criticism from local environmental groups.

But the venture's impact on lake clarity overall depends on California lawmakers. That's because two-thirds of Lake Tahoe is in California, and that state has yet to lift its ban on commercial harvesting of crayfish on the lake. The cost of environmental studies and permits has stalled legislation that would repeal the California ban.

In the meantime, Jackson is busy finding the best harvesting sites on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe through simple trial and error. On a recent trip out onto the lake, he and his nephew, Justin Pulliam, check on traps set 48 hours earlier.

"This is what we're looking for, right here," Jackson says when he pulls up a bucket full of crayfish.

"Pretty good," Pulliam agrees.

The two men empty the traps and quickly head to shore, where the crayfish will soon be served up at a local casino seafood buffet.

Betty "B" Gorman, the president of South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce, says Tahoe crayfish are a new product the chamber can market to tourists as a local food.

"We don't grow anything up here. It's hard to make a gourmet dish out of pine boughs," she says, laughing. "We don't have pine tree oil; we don't have a lot of products."

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

At Lake Tahoe, the tourism industry is a given. Now, for the first time since the 1930s, Lake Tahoe is open to commercial fishing. Nevada has given the green light to an entrepreneur to harvest crayfish.

Kate McGee with member station KUNR in Reno reports it's a small business venture that might also prove useful to tourism.

KATE MCGEE, BYLINE: The sun is still rising over the surrounding mountains as Fred Jackson and his nephew Justin Pulliam pilot their boat out onto Lake Tahoe.

They cut bait and they set their traps.

FRED JACKSON: All right, we're good. You can start anytime you want.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASH OF TRAPS IN WATER)

MCGEE: Scientists estimate there are around 300 million crayfish in Lake Tahoe. Jackson had the idea to harvest the lobster-like creatures as a small business. Right now he says, he and his nephew are looking for the best fishing sites through trial and error.

JACKSON: As we move along and research tells us where to go, then well end up moving to a spot where we can hit it really hard. We'll go in, we'll soak the traps for two days, pull them back out and bring the harvest back in.

MCGEE: Jackson is working with wholesaler, Sierra Gold Seafood, which has around 30 local hotels, casinos and restaurants interested in buying the crayfish. Sierra Gold expects that number to grow.

B. Gorman with the South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce. She says Tahoe crawfish are a new product the chamber can market to tourists as a local food.

B. GORMAN: We don't grow anything up here. You know, it's hard to make a gourmet dish out of pine boughs.

(LAUGHTER)

GORMAN: You know, we don't have pine tree oil; we don't have a lot of products.

MCGEE: The crayfish are more than a business opportunity. Harvesting them could also improve water clarity near the shore. Tahoe is famous for its clear ice blue water, but its clarity has diminished over time. It's a major concern to state and regional environmental agencies.

Dr. Sudeep Chandra, a freshwater biologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, studies crayfish at Lake Tahoe.

DR. SUDEEP CHANDRA: These crayfish are like cattle in the landscape, where they're moving across the bottom of the lake grazing on algae.

MCGEE: Algae makes the lake cloudy, so it stands to reason that crayfish would improve lake clarity. But Dr. Chandra says that's not the case.

CHANDRA: They can graze algae down, but when they excrete their nutrients, they could stimulate algal production.

MCGEE: The crayfish project has received virtually zero criticism from local environmental groups because of its potential to clean the lake. But its impact on lake clarity overall depends on California lawmakers. Two-thirds of Lake Tahoe is in the state of California. The cost of environmental studies and permits has stalled legislation in the California Assembly.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT ENGINE)

MCGEE: Forty-eight hours after setting the traps, Fred Jackson and his nephew are back out on the lake to see what they've caught. Some traps have only a handful of crayfish, but others are full. The crayfish fill an entire bucket.

JACKSON: This is what we're looking for, right here.

JUSTIN PULLIAM: Pretty good.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT ENGINE)

MCGEE: The two men empty the traps and quickly head to shore, where the crayfish will soon be served up at a local hotel-casino seafood buffet.

For NPR News, I'm Kate McGee in Reno. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.