wild edibles

TASTY INVASIVES

Yerington residents start a culinary enterprise that, consequently,
will improve Lake Tahoe's clarity.

WRITTEN BY AMY HARRIS
PHOTOS BY CANDICE NYANDO

Wild-Edibles-1
Stephanie and Fred Jackson of Tahoe Lobster Co. display their catch

Fred Jackson wants to bring some southern charm to the Reno-Tahoe region. Crayfish are considered a regional specialty in Louisiana, celebrated Cajun-style with a cold beer and jazz music. Restaurants all over New Orleans claim they have the world's best crayfish and T-shirts and posters featuring the vivid red crustaceans say, "Laissez le bons temps rouler!" or "Let the good times roll!" Jackson believes the crayfish living in Lake Tahoe's pristine waters can bring the same good times to the lake's economy, ecosystem, and culture.

For the past 20 years Jackson has worked at the Nevada Department of Wildlife. With the economy in a tough downturn, Jackson tried to think of several ways to gain supplemental income and also work within his specialty: environmental management and conservation.

"Fred sat up in bed at 2 a.m. and said, 'Steph, I got it!'" Jackson's wife, Stephanie, says. "He literally sat up in bed in the middle of the night with the idea and started researching the next day."

The idea was to start commercially harvesting crayfish in Lake Tahoe and sell them back to the public. As Jackson researched the crustaceans, he kept seeing the name Sudeep Chandra. Chandra is a University of Nevada, Reno professor who has spent years researching Lake Tahoe's aquatic ecology.

"I had an idea similar to Fred's when I was a grad student at (University of California,) Davis," Chandra says. "I was sampling crayfish at the lake, studying ecosystem dynamics and how crayfish affect the ecosystem in a disruptive way. I wondered, Can these things go to market? And it's totally possible."

Population Control

Since introduction to Lake Tahoe, the crayfish population has exploded to about 220 million. Like many invasive species, the crayfish's abundant presence in the lake negatively affects native species.

Before mysid shrimp were introduced into Lake Tahoe in the 1960s, crayfish were largely consumed by lake trout. Lake trout kept the crayfish's population in check. But when the trout's main food source shifted from crayfish to shrimp, the crayfish population exploded. Since the 1960s, the crayfish population has doubled and its ecological impact on the lake includes competing with native species and contributing to algal blooms.

As the crayfish population expands, the native fish population declines. This suggests, according to a report by Chandra, that the increase in the crayfish population negatively affects native fish species. Crayfish prey on mackinaw eggs and contribute to the growth of non-native warm water fishes such as the largemouth bass. The report suggests that crayfish are competing with, and ultimately displacing, native species.

Several lakes in the Midwest harvest crayfish as a management tool to promote diversity and protect native species. The commercial harvest of crayfish in Lake Tahoe would protect the lake's ecosystem and also provide local food to the community.

"There's an increased awareness about invasive species in the lake recently with the clams and mussels, but crayfish have never really been tackled," Chandra says. "This is a really unique entrepreneurial idea blended with science."

Harvest to Market

Since February 2011 Jackson and Chandra have worked together, presenting both the business and ecological benefits of harvesting crayfish to the Nevada Wildlife Commission. Commission members previously banned all commercial harvesting from the lake, but officially reversed the ban on Dec. 3, 2011.

Wildlife commission members still are working out the details of the permitting process, but Chandra and Jackson can't help but get excited about the future of their project.

"There's this whole movement nationally to eat invasive species," Chandra says. "This is a really new idea for our area to protect the ecosystem and get local food to the market."

The crayfish caught in Lake Tahoe will go straight from the traps to the wholesaler. And Jackson will control the product from the boat to the retail market. Sierra Gold Seafood Inc. is the only live seafood wholesaler in the area and it is adding freshwater tanks for the crayfish so restaurants and consumers can get the freshest product. Crayfish boast healthy omega-3 fatty acids, but the real draw is their flavor.

"Usually, we just boil a few pounds and eat them with butter and garlic," Jackson says. "If you like lobster, you will like crayfish and the ones from Lake Tahoe are pristine alpine crayfish. They taste different, they are sweet, and you peel and eat them like shrimp. This is an actual local product the community can call its own and I really believe in it."

Amy Harris is a writer from Lake Tahoe. She loves the idea of eating invasive species and hopes to see crayfish on the menu at her favorite restaurants soon.

Where to Get your Crayfish Fix

Local customers and restaurants can purchase the crayfish through Sierra Gold Seafood, which is Reno's only live, wholesale seafood distributor. It is adding freshwater tanks for the crayfish. For details, visit www.Sierragoldseafood.com and www.Tahoelobstercompany.com.

In the future, Jackson imagines organizing a crayfish festival, such as the one that happens every year in Isleton, Calif. That event draws thousands of people during Father's Day weekend. To follow details on the festival, visit www.Tahoelobstercompany.com.

RECIPE

(Crayfish boil recipe courtesy of Dr. Charles R. Goldman, noted limnologist who established the science-based program to save Lake Tahoe in the 1950s)
10 liters water
1 liter dry white wine (Sauvignon Blanc or muscadet)
2 large onions, chopped
4 lemons (juice plus 2 to 3 whole squeezed fruits)
1 cup fresh parsley
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
½ ounce dill weed
4 pounds whole crayfish

Bring the water to a boil before adding all ingredients except the crayfish. Boil until the onions are soft, then add the crayfish and maintain at a boil for about 10 minutes or until crayfish are bright red. Remove from heat and let the crayfish cool in the water. The longer the crayfish soak, the more flavorful they will be. Goldman has even recommended letting the crayfish steep overnight for maximum flavor. Whenever you're ready, simply peel and enjoy!

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