SACRAMENTO -- Nevada wildlife officials have issued the first commercial permit for crawfish harvest in Lake Tahoe, allowing the Tahoe Lobster Co. to go after some of the 220 million crustaceans living in the lake.
The fishing is expected to be a boon for the economy, tourism, cuisine and lake clarity. Waste products from the non-native crawfish, variously called crayfish or crawdads, feed the shallow-water algae growth that clouds the lake's crystalline waters.
They will be sold for local consumption, replacing less-reliable supplies and, possibly, imports from China, such as those used at Isleton's Cajun Festival in June.
"Nothing's more local than Tahoe," said Ben Deinken, a chef for the Brewer's Cabinet in Reno. "We want to get ahold of that."
Some California chefs would like to have a chance to use Tahoe crawfish, but code prohibits the sale or purchase of crawfish from Lake Tahoe, said Kevin Thomas, a senior environmental scientist for the California Department of Fish and Game.
The clarity issue is what's driving the move by the Nevada Department of Wildlife. "Algae growth is a major factor in Tahoe's declining clarity," said Sudeep Chandra, a lake scientist at the University of Nevada at Reno. "What we are finding is that the crayfish stimulate algae growth."
Biologists believe that signal crawfish, native to streams that flow to the Pacific, were introduced to the lake in the 1800s. They have thrived, doubling their population since the 1960s, Chandra said.
Chandra's research helped drive the decision to open the lake to commercial crawfish harvest.
"Our main focus is clarity," said Justin Pulliam of the Tahoe Lobster Co. "If we can pull these crayfish out and manage the resource, that's going to be ideal." His company needs other, local permits, but he hopes to begin fishing this month.
Taking an invasive species out of the lake and selling it for food is almost like discovering that yellow star thistle, the spiky invasive plant that covers about 14 million acres in California, could be harvested for salad.
Charles Goldman, the dean of Tahoe biologists, captured 65,000 crawfish in the Tahoe area years ago as part of his research efforts. He shipped them to Scandinavia, where native crawfish had been decimated by a plague. Goldman compared it with sending California grapevine stock to France in the 19th century to replace pest-damaged vines.
Goldman, a founder of the International Association of Astacology -- crawdad studies -- also likes to eat them. A website promoting the consumption of invasive species includes his recipe, which involves boiling them in a stock flavored with onion, dill, peppercorn, lemon and wine.
"That is my recipe for doing crayfish, really in the French fashion," Goldman said.