Humans have a long history of taking too much from nature, both land and sea, to the point of driving many species of animals to extinction or near enough to it to cause alarm. This has been especially evident in the sea, where overfishing has had a dramatic effect on the ocean’s ecosystems. However, we have also done the opposite, depositing new species in areas where they are able to thrive and often have a negative impact on the native species. In an effort to help control these effects, some scientists and chefs are encouraging the public to turn our historically destructive appetites to invasive species.
To learn about what invasive species are and how we can help slow their spread, we spoke with Joe Roman, a conservation biologist who created a website called Eat the Invaders.
“An invasive species is any non-native species,” explains Roman. “It could come in the ballast of a ship, or someone could have released it as a pet, and it becomes established. It expands, and becomes abundant in that habitat and has an ecological impact. It can also have an economic impact.
“The species I work on, for example, is the European Green Crab. It’s found in coastal systems throughout both coasts of North America, but came, as the name implies, from Europe. Once it got here it changed the coastal systems extensively. It feeds on soft-shell clams, so fishermen were affected by it when it arrived. Now it’s the most abundant crab in most tidal areas.”
Invasive species aren’t limited to just animals; if you live in the southeastern United States, chances are pretty good you’ve seen kudzu winding its way over trees and buildings alike. The fast-growing vine is originally from Asia, and once it gained a foothold in America, it quickly spread across the South. To find invasive species that are common in your area, check out the National Invasive Species Information Center.
“I was working on my Ph.D. in the early 2000s, and I was looking at this invasive species I mentioned, the European Green Crab,” says Roman. “I was flipping rocks in the intertidal [zone], looking at how they got here. While I was doing that, I noticed there was a fisherman nearby who was collecting periwinkles, which is a type of snail, off the rocks around me. I asked him about it, and he said he was selling these to the markets, typically Chinese and Italian markets in New York and Boston.”
While most people think of conserving nature as saving species from extinction, it turns out that in some cases the opposite may be more helpful.
“I spent my career as a conservationist trying to convince people to sustainably harvest things, and periwinkles and green crabs are the opposite. You want to encourage people to take as many as they can,” Roman says. “Extinction is actually the goal here. That changed my mind, or at least gave me the idea that this could be a way that we could manage invasive species by using appetites.”
Since then, the movement to help control the spread of invasive species by eating them has taken off, particularly in regard to the lionfish, an invasive species of fish that spans from the coast of North Carolina all the way throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. While the fish has toxic spines, its meat is firm and white, and is starting to show up on menus up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
When asked about the best-tasting invasive species he’s ever eaten, Roman has trouble choosing only one.
“Soft shell green crabs are delicious, but they’re not that easy to find. I harvested it, took it up right out of the water, sautéed it, and put it on a really nice baguette,” he recalls. “I’ve got a friend, Bun Lai, who is a sushi chef out of New Haven in Connecticut. His lionfish, his crab dishes, even mugwort and some other invasive species are delicious. You know what is another great one? Roasting a feral hog. They give a rich, brown meat, as opposed to pork, which is often advertised as the new white meat. This has more rich, tasty flavors.”
Regardless of species, he says, one thing holds true.
“The key to having good invasive species is getting them fresh,” he explains. “That’s what’s great; wherever we are now, right now I’m sure you’re surrounded. If we went and walked from wherever you’re sitting, we could find a few invaders. The key is freshness.”
While suppliers may not always have invasive species available, restaurants can take advantage of those that are local to them.
“The best way to do it, if you’re small, is contacting a local forager,” suggests Roman. “Contacting a local fisherman, if that’s where you are, or working with local foragers that can harvest things for you, that’s the best way.”
However, he cautions restaurants to source their products only through knowledgeable and responsible sources, lest the attempt at positive dining should have the opposite effect.
“Because I’m a conservationist,” Roman explains, “the key is we’re trying to promote the consumption of invasive species, but never the expansion of it. If you’re sourcing it, make sure you’re never releasing live ones. We’re not trying to promote the expansion, but rather the reduction in the numbers. Prevention is the most important thing. This is the second line of defense. The first line of defense is to prevent the expansion or invasion of these species, and the second line of defense is thinking of ways that we can mitigate it. Maybe our appetite is one good way.”