Desert-lobster dispute turns pair into sagebrush heroes
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.
Los Angeles Times
MINA, Nev. — On an overcast morning in 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, white-haired and blue-eyed, 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.
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 through black-and-white photos, 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 restaurants and a nearby post office. Even a Ford dealership.
"My dad was here during the Great Depression, and there was no depression," Bob said.
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.
He had a retiree's time and a 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 — Australian red-claw crayfish, which can weigh more than a pound — mainly in a greenhouse 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 said. "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-stoping 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."
Diners stream in
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?")
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. 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.
One 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 said. 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 across 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.
Bob tried to fight wildlife officials in court. Beers then introduced legislation to allow him to revive the stand.
"This is the case of the criminalized crustacean," Beers told colleagues in 2007, to no avail.
Bob and Pam plowed ahead with their eatery, the defiantly named Desert Lobster Cafe. It opened in December.
Pam, 62, runs things seven days a week, 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. She's willowy and bespectacled, her thinning hair clipped back with a barrette, her sneakers squeaking. The dinnerware is plastic. You fetch your can of Pepsi. Prices top out at $8.75.
While much of Nevada boomed in recent years, Mineral County languished. Mina relies on travelers, and they've been hard to come by during this recession.
"I hope they make it," said Laurie Buck, nodding toward the Eddys.
She and her husband, Bob, were polishing off a French dip sandwich and steak. They remember seeing Bob Eddy and his crustaceans on TV years ago, when the Bucks lived in Las Vegas.
Their $17 lunch was the week's big outing, and they chose the cafe mainly to support Bob and Pam.
In this government-suspicious state, the Eddys are highly regarded among desert dwellers. When Beers failed to win re-election, GOP Assemblyman Ed Goedhart took up their cause. But he couldn't get the bill heard during the 2009 session and promised to help Bob get through administrative channels — all front-page news in the Pahrump Valley Times.
For now, all that remains of the Eddys' seafood stand a few miles south is the greenhouse skeleton and a sign:
Liquor Legal 24 HR
Gambling Legal 24 HR
Prostitution Legal 24 HR
Lobsters NOT LEGAL
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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