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    Isleton's Cajun Festival, alas, served up precooked Chinese crawfish this year, instead of a local product.

  • Stuart Leavenworth

Stuart Leavenworth: Eat more mudbugs and Keep Tahoe Blue?

Published: Sunday, Jul. 8, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jul. 10, 2012 - 8:55 am

They go by several different names: Crayfish, crawfish, crawdads, yabbies, mudbugs.

Whatever you call them, there are about 220 million of these crustaceans bathing in Lake Tahoe, where they apparently are adding to the algae growth that clouds North America's largest alpine lake.

Some scientists want to reduce these numbers, and for that there is an easy solution. If California and Nevada were to transplant some Cajuns to Tahoe, the crayfish population would be diminished in a few months.

Instead, as Carlos Alcalá reported Wednesday in The Bee, Nevada has just issued its first permit for commercial harvesting of crayfish in that state's waters of Lake Tahoe. The company granted the permit, Tahoe Lobster Co., hopes to supply restaurants looking for a local source of what French gourmands call écrevisse.

So should California follow Nevada's lead and permit commercial harvesting of Tahoe crayfish? I say: Laissez les bon temps rouler.

There are hundreds of species of crayfish – more than 300 in North America alone – but the mudbugs in Tahoe are a type called signal crayfish. Biologists say that fishermen introduced the species – native to states such as Washington, Oregon and Idaho – to Tahoe as early as the 1800s. Yet, according to journalist Joe Eaton, the California Fish and Game Department might have had a hand in the spread of exotic species, as it did with so many others.

Signal crayfish were brought to a Fish and Game hatchery in Santa Cruz in 1912 for a study, Eaton reports. When the study was finished, the crayfish were released into the San Lorenzo River, eventually spreading to many other waterways.

Because they are an invader, crayfish disrupt the food web of any California waters they inhabit. In Tahoe, they stimulate algae growth by excreting nutrients and grazing on dead algal cells, opening up room for more algae growth, according to Sudeep Chandra, a limnologist at the University of Nevada, Reno.

For decades, the Tahoe crayfish were held in check by kokanee salmon and trout. That all changed in the 1960s. Someone introduced a species of shrimp, Mysis relicta, into the lake, and the fish started eating the shrimp instead of crayfish. As a result, the Tahoe crayfish population has quadrupled since the 1960s, to roughly 220 million.

I say let's eat 'em.

Back when I lived in Louisiana, we'd devour crawfish – not crayfish, mind you – by the tub full. The usual method would be to boil them and spice them, and then pick them apart on a table covered in newspapers. You can't quite replicate the same scene here, partly because the humidity is so low, we lack decent accordion players and it's hard to find a bottle of Dixie beer. Another big challenge is we'd need our public schools to offer lessons in how to eat crawfish.

I'd likely flunk. When a caterer served crawdads at a recent event at the Crocker Museum, some of my Bee colleagues asked me for instruction on how to extract the luscious lobster-like meat from the shells.

"Certainly," I said, trying to recall how I once used to do it. The result was a geyser of crawfish juices splattering my jacket and soiling my reputation as a foodie.

Despite such obstacles, there is little doubt that more adept crawfish eaters would rally behind a California-grown product. It's an outrage, as Alcalá reported, that Isleton's Cajun Festival serves precooked crayfish from China instead of fresh, local fare. That's almost as bad as the Chinese-made American flags so many people were waving July 4.

Perhaps we should start a rumor that Chinese crawfish are hunted with packs of dogs. Then the California Legislature would ban them.

Much to my surprise, Assemblywoman Beth Gaines of Rocklin is leading the legislative effort to create a commercial market for California crawfish, ensuring we no longer need to eat mudbugs from the land of Mao. Gaines is the author of Assembly Bill 2504, which would repeal an existing prohibition on commercial take of crawfish from Lake Tahoe or the Tahoe basin.

Gaines always struck me as a prim politician, one not wanting to be associated with the sin and depravity of crawfish festivals. Yet who knows? Perhaps she sneaks off at night to drink Dixie beer and dance to Rockin' Dopsie and the Zydeco Twisters.

Whatever her motivation, Gaines is on the right side of history in attempting to end the 5-decade-old ban on commercial harvest of Tahoe crawfish.

Boogie on, Beth.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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