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No homegrown seafood for this Nevada town

Bob and Pam Eddy have fought to make a go of it selling live 'desert lobsters,' or Australian red claw crayfish. But wildlife officials have made the state even less hospitable to the crustaceans.

July 02, 2009|Ashley Powers

MINA, NEV. — On an overcast morning in stark western Nevada, where towns are mostly remnants of mining booms past, Pam Eddy dresses each table in her modest cafe with French mustard and fancy tomato ketchup. Coffee drip-drops, an ABBA album hums.

An hour crawls by. Nothing.

Pam's husband, Bob, loses himself in photos of Mina's more prosperous youth. Bob is white-haired and blue-eyed and sports a maroon trucker's cap, which depicts a cowboy, a crayfish and the oxymoron DESERT LOBSTER.

Go ahead, ask him about it: He'll muster an almost-smile.

Here in Mina -- population about 200 -- Bob and Pam Eddy have pursued an improbable dream. For about 14 years, they've tried to bring seafood, or their version of it, to this remote patch of desert. They've sparred with the state, pleaded with lawmakers and become heroes to sagebrush rebels over their "desert lobsters."

Bob, 67, thumbs black-and-white photos with time-worn hands, remembering when Mina was less reliant on outsiders. It's pronounced "mine-ah," and is either named for the Spanish word for "mine," a female prospector or a local prostitute. A century-old railroad and mining town, Mina once supported its own restaurants and a nearby post office. Even a Ford dealership.

"My dad was here during the Great Depression, and there was no depression," Bob says.

But the railroad has closed, old buildings have burned down, and the population has fallen from nearly 500 in 1970. Still, Bob dreamed of opening a roadside stand.

And why not? He had a retiree's time and a clear monopoly on the sagebrush seafood market. Reno is about 170 miles away; Las Vegas, 280. Drivers barreling between them have to pass through on two-lane Highway 95.

Trying to make the most of his location, Bob had been raising thousands of desert lobsters -- actually Australian red claw crayfish, which can weigh more than a pound -- mainly in a greenhouse just south of Mina. His 10 tanks (8 feet wide, 22 feet long, 3 feet deep) were partly buried to keep the water from dipping below 80 degrees.

"You can feed them peas; you can feed them alfalfa hay," he says. "They eat just about anything. You can even feed them cow manure."

Each day, Bob sold a handful of live blue-and-red crayfish, for $14 a pound, to pit-stopping truckers and tourists. The crayfish gained a following. Fans included Bob Beers, an accountant and former Republican state senator, who in 2007 championed the creatures on the state Senate floor.

"We picked up 5 pounds of this desert lobster and cooked them later in the RV," he told lawmakers. "If you shut your eyes and considered how far you were from a big city, they kind of tasted like lobster."

At the Desert Lobster Cafe, which is part building, part boat, lunchtime arrives, and half a dozen diners stream in. Many live in town and, like siblings, shout among tables. ("You get rid of your favorite ex-wife?")

They remember Bob spending years on this structure of blue corrugated tin, where the main entryway is flanked by a sign trumpeting: FINE FOODS and TRUCKERS WELCOME. (A smaller sign cautions: "CASH ONLY PLEASE. We don't have a credit card machine yet.")

Take a look around the front room: a tomahawk, a peace pipe, crab traps, a ship porthole, a stuffed mountain lion, its skull. Bob once envisioned this as a showroom for his desert lobsters.

But.

The diners shake their heads, remembering.

The freshwater crustaceans did not charm state officials, who feared that if a customer decided to free some crayfish into waterways rather than boil them, the creatures might feast on the eggs of Railroad Valley springfish, a threatened species.

So wildlife officials sparred with Bob for years, according to legislative testimony. His permit, they said, allowed him to sell live crayfish only to licensed commercial operators. He sold them to people from his roadside stand anyway. The state stripped him of his permit and took him to court.

On a sweltering morning in 2003, after months of warnings, authorities stormed the greenhouse with a court order and chlorine bleach. Some wore bulletproof vests and carried guns.

"They poisoned them and hauled a bunch off and dumped them out in the desert," Bob says. He had as much as 300 pounds of crayfish at the time.

"I have a stark memory of stopping back in and seeing the carnage left behind," Beers told lawmakers in 2007, according to meeting minutes.

The Eddys argued that Nevadans could order crayfish online and buy them in other states. Why was their stand singled out? Supporters denounced the Great Crayfish Raid as government overreaching and spread the tale around the state.

"I feel so much safer living in Nevada now that we have destroyed that prosperous crawfish farm in Mina," sneered one letter to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

"Guard your tropical fish aquariums and casino fish tanks; they are next," mocked another.

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