LAKE TAHOE — Some people can’t eat when they have a problem. Other people eat so much it becomes a problem. And still others just eat their problems. Residents and visitors of Lake Tahoe could fall into that last category. If, that is, they can stomach the area’s pesky crustacean — the crayfish.
The Nevada Wildlife Commission passed a regulation allowing the commercial harvest of crayfish from Lake Tahoe at its Dec. 3 meeting. The regulation is one step forward in a move that could turn the invasive species into an enjoyable meal.
Established as a population by 1936, researchers estimate there are now more than 220 million Signal Crayfish inhabiting Lake Tahoe’s near-shore waters. The lobster-like crustaceans have been linked to increased algae blooms, a decrease in native invertebrates and are believed to be detrimental to Lake Tahoe’s clarity. Non-native warm-water fish, such as largemouth bass and bluegill, are nearly the only predators that feed on the crayfish.
Fred Jackson, a Yerington resident, has spearheaded the movement to allow commercial harvest of crayfish in Lake Tahoe since June. By harvesting the crayfish, fishermen would be helping the environment, creating jobs and providing a tasty new ingredient, Jackson said.
“It’s going to be a positive thing for Lake Tahoe,” he said. “That’s the message we’ve been focusing on the whole time.”
Though recreational fishermen catch and eat non-native trout species frequently, there have been attempts to eat Lake Tahoe’s other invasive species that didn’t turn out too well. The staff of the Tahoe Environmental Research Center barbecued Asian clams to test their palatability.
“The conclusion of this very un-scientific test was that they were tasteless,” said TERC director Geoff Schladow. “There won’t be a clam linguini a la Tahoe any time soon. Generations of people have eaten crayfish. There’s no question about whether or not they’re tasty.”
Jackson said he’s tried crawdads from all over the country and even some from outside the U.S., and crawdads from Lake Tahoe top the taste chart.
“There’s nothing that can compare to crayfish from Lake Tahoe,” he said. “They’re the freshwater Langostino.”
A non-native species becomes “invasive” when it threatens or harms the native ecosystem of an area. In recent years, the push to eat invasives has grown stronger and stronger. Across the country, “invasivores” are munching on a huge variety of species, from lion fish to Asian carp, dandelion greens to green crab, earthworms to tilapia. There’s even a website dedicated to the subject, Invasivores.org, that provides recipes and news.
“It’s a win-win for everybody, but the invasives species,” said Zach Corrigan, fish program director for Food and Water Watch, a national organization that promotes safe, accessible and sustainable food sources. “Humans can become the predator, thin the species and lessen the negative effects of these populations.”
A number of organizations and agencies have jumped on board with the movement. The Nature Conservancy sponsored a food event centered around the introduced lion fish, which is wreaking havoc among Florida’s reefs. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is looking at where commercial pulls of different invasive species could make an impact. And numerous publications are chronicling the rising trend of eating invasives.
But it’s unclear what impact, if any, the consumption will have on the different populations of invasive species. In the Mississippi River, the commercial take of Asian carp is believed to have slowed the fish’s progress north toward the Great Lakes. It will likely take a market for an invasive species as well as other regulatory measures to ensure these populations stay under control, said FWS aquatic invasive species biologist Jason Goldberg. One concern of FWS is fisheries need to be focused on limiting the population and stopping the spread of a species, rather than establishing a sustainable fishery, Goldberg said.
“It’s definitely an exciting issue and one that FWS and its partners are exploring to ensure that, if done, is handled in a way that benefits both the economy and environment,” he said.
Jackson, under the banner of Tahoe Lobster Company, will fish for the crawdads using traps in waters up to 40 feet deep. He’s still working on the perfect combination of bait and type of trap.
“The big problem is the bait issue,” Jackson said. “As long as you have bait in the trap, the crawdads will enter, but as soon as they’re done, they seem to find a way out.”
In Nevada, for recreational fishermen there’s no limit to the number of crayfish that can be caught, and a fishing license isn’t needed when going after crayfish with traps. Jackson plans on collecting data while fishing and submit it to the University of Nevada, Reno. He hopes the data will help scientists better understand and monitor the crayfish problem. Once caught, the clawed critters will be kept alive. Jackson plans on selling his catch to wholesaler Sierra Gold Seafood out of Sparks. President Jim Crowell, who’s worked the seafood business for 40 years, is excited to add a new local species to his offerings.
“People can crack and eat them,” he said. “They can be peeled and eaten like shrimp.”
Before Jackson can get started pulling crawdads from the lake, he’s got a few more hoops to jump through.
“Now that we’ve authorized commercial take, it’s up to him to go through the permitting process,” said Chris Healy, NDOW spokesman.
The permit costs $500 per year. But that the commission passed the new regulation as written shows it’s excited about the possibility, Healy said.
“The experts were saying ‘hey this can’t hurt and it might actually do some good,’” he said. “It was a pretty easy decision.”
Jackson will also have to receive permits from agencies that govern food and food safety like the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And he’ll have to work with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency to abide by their thresholds for recreation, fisheries and water quality. The agency has already said it’s open to the idea.
“We would simply want to have a pre-application meeting with him to discuss his plans and make sure there would be no negative impacts on any of the thresholds,” said TRPA spokeswoman Kristi Boosman.