It sure would be nice to think that we could solve our invasive species problems by eating them all, but we probably can’t.
It seems like a simple proposition: American lakes, rivers and offshore waters are filling up with destructive fish and crustaceans originally from other parts of the world, many of them potential sources of food.
So why not control these invasive populations by getting people to eat them?
The idea has gained momentum recently from the lionfish, which invaded the Gulf of Mexico but was successfully marketed to restaurants and today appears to be in decline.
But businesses and scientists have struggled to repeat this apparent triumph with other species. Some, such as Asian carp, are not appetizing to Americans. Others, like feral hogs, reproduce too quickly to make a dent. And then there’s the question of whether turning them into sought-after cuisine undermines the larger goal of eliminating them.
“Eating invasive species is not a silver bullet,” said Laura Huffman, the Nature Conservancy’s director in Texas. But it can still be “a way to get people engaged in the topic and in the solution.”
The lionfish, a striped saltwater species with a flowing mane of venomous spines, is native to the Indo-Pacific Ocean and was first spotted in parts of the Gulf and off the East Coast a little more than 10 years ago. The skilled predators damage reefs and devour native fish, and they are eaten only by sharks — or larger lionfish.
People soon learned that beneath the lionfish’s spiky skin lies a buttery, flaky meat that is perfect for ceviche, taco filler or as an alternative to lobster. After a few years of intense fishing and brisk fillet sales, the population is dropping.
But similar efforts targeting feral hogs, Asian carp and the Himalayan blackberry have been far less successful.
This subject comes up a lot, mostly in the context of feral hogs. Indeed, two years ago Texas Monthly proposed a culinary solution to our invasive species problem. It’s worked pretty well for lionfish and giant prawns, but some invasives just aren’t that appetizing, while the aforementioned hogs just reproduce too much to make an appreciable dent in their population that way. Plus, as the story notes, turning invasive species into a cash crop provides for some perverse economic incentives, and likely isn’t a net winner. Make some lemonade if you can, but don’t expect it to be more than that.