Will eating invasive species help us deport them?

Invasive species can be economically and environmentally devastating. Now some people are combating the problem one bite at a time.

'This is not going to solve the problem, but it might help mitigate it ... while also providing a good meal'

A lionfish swims near coral off the Caribbean island of Bonaire. Some chefs are putting the invasive species on their menus, even though lionfish are difficult to catch and must be individually speared. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

Asian carp. Periwinkle. Burmese python. If we can't beat them, can we eat them?

The New York-based Explorers Club put invasive species on the menu last weekend during their annual dinner — an event that's become known over the years for its "exotic hors d'oeuvres."

Event organizers decided to use the idea of invasivorism as a "springboard" to better highlight the theme of this year's dinner: ocean conservation.

"I feel like many people don't even know that invasive species are a problem, so by highlighting them with our reception, it was just a great way to start talking about it," says Gaelin Rosenwaks, a marine biologist and 10-year veteran of the Explorers Club who helped organize the dinner.

The Explorers Club's annual dinner, held in New York, featured such invasive species as lionfish, snakehead, Burmese python and some algaes. (Craig Chesek/Explorers Club)

"It just got people to think a little bit outside the box and about different ways of enjoying seafood … having a positive impact with consumption rather than just a negative impact."

Invasive species — those not native to a specific location — often spread quickly when introduced to a new environment due to a lack of natural predators. They can be environmentally and economically devastating, pushing out native species or destroying their habitats.

The Explorers Club dinner featured Asian carp, Chesapeake blue catfish, snakehead, a few different invasive algaes and lionfish — an ornate, colourful fish whose numbers have exploded across the Caribbean and along the East Coast, likely after being released from home aquariums.
The theme of this year's Explorers Club dinner was ocean conservation. (Gaelin Rosenwaks/Provided/Explorers Club)

With a large, venomous spine, lionfish have few enemies and often gulp down any fish smaller than themselves. They've become such a problem that lionfish hunting derbies are regularly held in places like the Florida Keys, Cuba and the Bahamas.

Beyond the seafood selections, Explorers Club guests were also invited to munch on green iguana and Burmese python — reptiles overrunning the Florida Everglades.

"It's a really challenging issue," Rosenwaks says. "[Eating invasives] is not necessarily going to solve our problem, but it'll certainly get people aware of it."

Invasives of Canada

In Canada, the European green crab and Asian crab have been threatening shellfish stocks on the Atlantic coast, while farmers in Alberta and Saskatchewan are constantly battling wild boars. In Ontario and Quebec, the emerald ash borer has destroyed thousands of trees, while zebra mussels and sea lampreys have invaded the Great Lakes.

And across the country, giant hogweed, purple loosestrife and Japanese knotweed can defeat even the greenest of thumbs.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency estimates the annual impact of invasive species to be as much as $30 billion, while the International Union for Conservation of Nature calls them the second-most significant threat to species extinction.

Ontario has been working hard to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes, making it illegal to possess live specimens. Five were found in the Toronto area last year. (Associated Press)

Conservation biologist Joe Roman says there's "more and more evidence" suggesting invasivorism can help control some unruly populations.

He points to Nile perch, introduced into Africa's Lake Victoria in the 1950s. This predatory species quickly took over, killing off an estimated 200 fish species. A robust fishing industry was born but would be short-lived; demand for the Nile perch led to overfishing, and stocks have been dramatically reduced. Now, Roman says, some other species are starting to come back.

Foraging and eating local

Roman started the website Eat the Invaders in the early 2000s, providing information and recipes for edible invasives. He believes invasivorism has been gaining traction in recent years thanks to locavore and foraging movements — not to mention the rise of odd-ingredient cooking shows like Iron Chef and Chopped.

"As a conservationist, I'm always trying to get people to stop eating so much, to stop harvesting things in the wild," he says. "It was sort of like a switch: here's a case where we should eat more of them."

The key to its success, he says, will be creating a consumer market for these species, perhaps by getting chefs and other culinary tastemakers involved to show some of these foods really are palatable.

Not all invasives are edible. Zebra mussels, for example, are often full of toxins they've filtered from the water around them. (Wisconsin Dept of Natural Resources, Flickr cc)

Still, Roman firmly believes invasivorism is a boutique market that should serve as a "third line of defence" against invasive species, after strong prevention legislation and monitoring and eradication programs.

"It should be clear that this is not going to solve the problem, but it might help mitigate it and reduce it in some ways, while also providing a good meal."

And the end goal is always eradication. The "worst-case scenario" would be to create too much demand for non-native species by making them delicacies, he says.

The inedibles

It's worth noting not all invasives are edible.

Zebra mussels, for example, can theoretically be eaten, but they're often loaded with toxins. And studies have shown the Burmese pythons being hunted in the Everglades have high levels of mercury. (The Explorers Club safety-tested all its food before serving it.)

In Canada, most provinces have strict laws around serving wild game, which makes it difficult for chefs to tap into the invasive market.

Manitoba chef Anna Sigrithur perhaps learned this the hard way.

The co-founder of Clandess Diner — a monthly pop-up restaurant in Winnipeg that focuses on putting underutilized and local wild ingredients on the menu — recently featured a bouillabaisse made from rusty crayfish on one of her menus.

While it went over well with guests, she says she got "yelled at" by Manitoba Conservation for trapping and harvesting the invasive species.

"I think a lot of people are looking for a way to combat these things or look for a way to engage with ecological difficulties in a way that's more than just policy. And people doing that through their tastebuds is becoming more of an interesting conversation," she says.

Garlic mustard is an invasive plant species that also happens to be tasty. You can substitute it for basil to make a fresh pesto, for example. (Jonathan Pinto/CBC)

Harvesting wild plants may be a simpler introduction to invasivorism, suggests Roman, noting dandelion, burdock and garlic mustard are easy to find.

You shouldn't eat anything, he says, until you're absolutely certain you've identified it botanically and know it comes from a place free of chemicals and far from heavy traffic.

'Little bit challenging'

But eating invasive isn't going to be for everyone. The Explorers Club's Rosenwaks admits she had a hard time seeing the green iguana prepared at the organization's dinner.

"It was quite dramatic and difficult to handle, even though I understand the problem," she says. "It's a little bit challenging for people to get over."

U.S. chef Bun Lai says studies show it takes about six or seven exposures for people to start liking new foods.

He just opened a beachside pop-up restaurant in Miami called Prey, serving up invasive dishes like lionfish sashimi, Asian carp ribs, roasted feral pork, mugwort onigiri and pickled Japanese knotweed chips.

Mugwort sushi is available at Bun Lai's pop-up restaurant Prey in Miami, which runs until April 25. (Prey)

It's an extension of sorts of his family-owned restaurant Miya's, located in New Haven, Conn., a sustainable sushi restaurant.

"We've been using unconventional ingredients in order to support the idea of sustainable eating for 15 years now," Lai recently told CBC Radio's As It Happens.

Three-quarters of Prey's menu is plant-based, while the animal proteins are species that are abundant or under-utilized. Lai says the lionfish on the menu is harvested "one by one" right in front of the hotel where the pop-up is located.

"It's about sustainability, which is a conversation about how we choose to live and eat and how it impacts the rest of the world," says Lai.

"There's different, alternate ways of eating and living that are nourishing to our bodies and also restorative to the planet as well."

With files from CBC Radio's As It Happens