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.
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.