Food for Thought Part 2: When Invasive Species Become the Meal
The red lionfish in its home hunting grounds of the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean was just a fish among fish, a known enemy that the smarter, smaller creatures avoided, and food itself for larger predators. But by 1985, one was recognized off the coast of Florida. Scientists theorize that specimens imported to the United States as part of the aquarium trade were let loose in the ocean. They adapted quickly and began thriving throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, and traveling north to Rhode Island by 2001 and south to Brazil by 2014.
Lionfish are voracious eaters; researchers have observed that the presence of a single red lionfish in a small patch of reef can lead, in just five weeks, to an 80-percent decrease in the number of native fish that survive from larvae to adulthood. They also breed at a startling rate: females are capable of producing eggs every three to four days, roughly two million a year.
This article, from the New York Times, suggests that one way to help control such invasive species is to put them on the menu:
For in the past decade, another front has opened up in the fight: restaurants and home kitchens, where we are slowly learning to defeat the enemy bite by bite. In Florida, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in partnership with REEF has enlisted chefs to make a case for lionfish as a delicacy: pan-seared, skewered on its own spines (provided that the spines have been baked first, to denature the venom) or diced into ceviche. To the south, in Colombia, where the government has declared the lionfish a “national security threat,” an ad agency persuaded local priests to exhort their congregations to eat lionfish during Lent, as a good deed, to help restore equilibrium to the sea.
These campaigns are part of a broader movement to reduce, if not eradicate, invasive species — Burmese pythons up to 20 feet long swallowing bobcats whole in the Florida Everglades; sea lampreys sucking the blood out of fish in the Great Lakes; wild boars uprooting crops and wreaking havoc in city streets from Berlin to Hong Kong — by cooking them for dinner.
Using slogans such as “If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em”, educational websites like “Eat the Invaders” urge diners to take up eating invasive species as a type of civic duty. Some universities host annual invasive-species-themed cook-offs, fund-raisers and feral-hog roasts. At least one state, Maryland, has started putting the blue catfish, indigenous to the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico and now gobbling up blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, on menus at state institutions, including schools, hospitals and prisons.
Sometimes it’s a tough sell to convince diners that something bad is actually something good. For example, nutria, a 14-pound rodent with long orange teeth that lurks in the swamps of Louisiana, have multiplied, gobbling up plant roots in the marshes and leaving a wake of razed vegetation equal to 10 times the amount of each mouthful they take. The article notes:
Robert A. Thomas, a biologist and director of the Center for Environmental Communication at Loyola University New Orleans, was among the first to offer a culinary solution to the problem. In 1993, he recruited the chef Paul Prudhomme to transform the erstwhile pest into gumbo and étouffée for what would become, for a few years, an annual “Nutriafest”. (The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries later joined the fight, posting online recipes for nutria chili and jambalaya.) Prudhomme has described nutria meat as “a light lamb,” while others liken it to rabbit or turkey thigh. Still, the animal’s reputation as roadkill remains a barrier to its acceptance, however adorned with cayenne and allspice.
Sometimes the effort leads to successes like wild fennel from the Mediterranean that proliferates in abandoned lots which is becoming prized for its vivid flavor, and black tiger shrimp in the waters off Texas, half the length of a human arm and as plump and sweet as lobster.
Another example is the Silverfin which the article says “… is the Louisiana chef Philippe Parola’s rebranding of the formidable silver carp, capable of growing four feet long and known to leap out of waterways and slap boaters on the head hard enough to cause a concussion. This troublemaker now quietly inhabits the frozen-food aisle, in the innocent form of breaded fish cakes, safely free of the carp’s many annoying intramuscular bones.”
I suppose this is a good idea. It seems to be one solution to undoing the damage we as humans caused in the first place. Availability and price would also seem to be a limiting factor, among other issues, federal regulations on trafficking wild-caught game across state lines can make it tricky to procure such ingredients in the first place. There is also the law of unintended consequences and the article warns:
At the same time, the word “invasive” has metaphorical freight, encouraging, as the American biologist Matthew K. Chew has written, the “monstering” of flora and fauna, which can make killing them seem like the central mission, diverting attention from the more difficult and demanding task of redressing environmental harm…
Well, I’m hungry now… who’s ready for some pie made with wild fennel, kudzu, Japanese beetles, tiger shrimp and Asian shore crabs. Yum…!