By Molly Neylan
According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Services, there were over 50,000 non-native species of plants and animals in the U.S. as of 2004. Of those species, well over 4,300 are considered invasive, as their introduction into the ecosystem causes environmental damage, economic damage, or both.
Controlling these species has proven a difficult task for conservationists. Pesticides and other means of chemical control are often effective, but pose a danger to other components of the environment. Biocontrol, or the employment of organisms that would prey upon the invasive species, takes extensive research in order to understand the ecological interactions between the controlling species and its invasive target. Physical removal of species and cultural management, which involves the manipulation of an environment’s structure to reduce a species’ impact, both serve as effective control measures as well. Corollary to these various means of control is an additional suggestion: eating invasive species.
A number of sources, including the initiative to eat the invasive Asian Carp — marketed as Silverfin — summarize the effort as “if you can’t beat them, eat them,” a phrase nearly inescapable in reports on the associated movements. The suggestion to eat invasives — or species simply considered a nuisance, like many weeds — has been discussed for a long time. Proponents of this strategy often highlight their abundance and, in many cases, nutritional value. Over the last decade, the idea of putting invasive species on the menu has gained traction with both popular media and government organizations like the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. Florida has been an epicenter of this movement, particularly with regards to its lionfish problem; the NOAA launched a campaign in 2011 to promote the lionfish as an excellent candidate for ceviche-style dishes — once “stripped of its venomous spines, cleaned, and filleted like any other fish,” of course.
Harvesting and eating invasive species effectively minimizes their spread in local environments. A great repository of resources on eating invasives exists, from the NOAA’s informational pages to sites like invasivore.org and Eat The Invaders which highlight recipes for various species. Media promotes harvesting these species also raises public awareness of their problematic role. It has proven particularly effective in engaging those not commonly involved in conservation, but who might be interested in a harvest program; for example, local chefs who have proved highly effective in furthering awareness of edible invasives often learn about species’ detrimental effects on the ecosystem through these programs.
Consuming invasives can additionally help stimulate economic growth at a local level. Various incentives for their harvest have historically been put in place by government and conservation organizations; these include bounties for hunting the species — often recreationally — and the creation of a commercial market. Non-native deer, hare, and fishes are widely hunted for preparation of local dishes in Patagonia, and introduced pigs in Hawaii are protected by the government for their game value and long-standing role in Hawaiian culture and economy.
Combining these economic incentives with raising awareness of invasive species can assist in the early detection and rapid response efforts necessary to put a damper on the spread of invasives. Proper identification of a problematic species is necessary for the detection-and-response initiative, and educating people on the use of invasive species as food could assist in keeping a species’ range from spreading too far by teaching them to identify the species which are the most detrimental.
Of course, stopping the spread of a species may be complicated by the potential creation of a market for it. This can prove dangerous, as it frequently normalizes the presence of an invasive species, incorporating it into an area’s culture and economy. The same invasive deer, hare, and salmonid fishes hunted in Patagonia are at little risk of population decrease, in part due to a demand for their meat and partly due to their overall cultural importance. When a species becomes so entwined with a culture that removing it would take away an aspect of culinary tradition and identity, conversations about its detrimental effect on the environment can prove difficult to navigate.
In addition to the problem of marketing, the physical harvest of species for use as food does not always guarantee a decline in population. Demographics of introduced species are frequently difficult to pinpoint, making effective reduction of their numbers a challenge. Many campaigns revolving around invasive plants tend to focus on selecting particular parts of the plant, removing only leaves, fruit, or stems that are edible, but this does not address the reproductive parts of the plant or roots that may encroach on the space of nearby native plants.
Quickly-propagating species like the lionfish also prove a challenge to control on a large scale due to their distribution and ability to repopulate after a bout of overfishing.
In just Massachusetts, there are over 66 species of non-native plants with invasive characteristics; in his work educating the public on edible wild foods, naturalist Russ Cohen highlights the 20 of them that are edible. Cohen’s current focus, however, is on the propagation of native species. Advocating for the planting of native species — in this case, for their culinary value — provides yet another method of combating invasives from the opposite end of the spectrum, allowing for native species to cultivate in areas where they once were sparse or dominated by invasives.
As a whole, eating invasives in order to beat them could be a helpful strategy, but has trouble standing on its own. While it may seem at first glance to be a sustainable and beneficial solution — both economically and environmentally — eating invasives should be considered carefully and in conjunction with other control measures. Defining what kind of plan is best to eliminate invasive species populations should largely be done on a case-by-case basis. Creating a market for edible invasives serves as a helpful supplement for other programs, including thorough research into the population dynamics of the target species. This allows for a better understanding of not only how many individuals can be removed from the environment, but also at what stage in an organism’s life cycle harvesting them is most effective for population control.
Nuñez, M. A., Kuebbing, S., Dimarco, R. D., & Simberloff, D. (2012). Invasive Species: To eat or not to eat, that is the question. Conservation Letters,5(5), 334-341. doi:10.1111/j.1755-263x.2012.00250.x
Pasko, S., & Goldberg, J. (2014). Review of harvest incentives to control invasive species. Management of Biological Invasions,5(3), 263-277. doi:10.3391/mbi.2014.5.3.10
US Department of Commerce, & National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (2010, June 10). Filleting the Lion. Retrieved April 5, 2019, from https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/news/weeklynews/june10/eatlionfish.htmlWeatherbee, P. B., Somers, P., & Simmons, T. (1998). A guide to invasive plants in Massachusetts. Massachusetts: Division of Fisheries & Wildlife.