July 11, 2011

Experts: Eat Invasive Species To Control Population

America get ready: a new delicacy may be coming to a table near you. That's right, environmentalists, consumer groups and scientists are seriously working up new solutions to control the ever rising populations of invasive aquatic species in America, and want people to step up their eating game and devour away the infestation.

Among the top offenders is the lionfish. With its dark red and black stripes, spotted fins and venomous black spikes, it seems like it wouldn't make a nice meal choice. But according to experts, lionfish fritters may be on the table soon.

The invasive lionfish is devastating reef fish populations along the Florida coast and into the Caribbean. The novel idea to turn this predator into a dinner menu item aims to take pressure off depleted ocean fish stocks.

"Humans are the most ubiquitous predators on earth," Philip Kramer, director of the Caribbean program for the Nature Conservancy, told the New York Times. "Instead of eating something like shark fin soup, why not eat a species that is causing harm, and with your meal make a positive contribution?"

Invasive species have become an incommodious problem in the US, with ever-increasing populations of Asian Carp overrunning the Mississippi River and European Green Crab mobbing the coastlines. These invasive species have few natural predators in North America and have thrived in our waters, eating native animals and out-competing them for food and habitat.

Experts are hoping to lure seafood eaters away from menu items such as grouper that is over-fished and the threatened Chilean sea bass, replacing them with Asian carp and lionfish.

"We think there could be a real market," said Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food and Water Watch. Hauter's 2011 Smart Seafood Guide for the first time recommends that diners eat invasive species as a "safer, more sustainable" alternative to other endangered aquatic species, and to encourage fishermen and markets to provide them.

"What these species need now is a better "” sexier "” profile, and more cooks who know how to use them," she told the NY Times. Hauter has enlisted celebrity chefs to promote invasive dining.

Human consumption of the invasive species is only part of the answer. Scientists say a comprehensive plan to restore native fish populations to healthy levels must include erecting physical barriers to prevent further dissemination of invasive species and also restoring native fish predators to depleted habitats.

"We are not going to be able to just eat our way out of the invasive species problem," said Kramer. "On the other hand, there are places where this can be a very useful part of the strategy."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is exploring where it may be helpful. Models suggest that commercial harvest of Asian carp would most likely help control populations in the Mississippi River, "as part of an integrated pest management program," said agency spokeswoman Valerie Fellows.

It is still unclear, however, how much of an impact commercial fishing would have on the Asian carp, she noted. The Army Corps of Engineers has spent millions of dollars to erect electronic barriers to keep Asian carp from moving into the Great Lakes.

And there are significant risks of getting Americans to find a niche for invasive species as a dinner option. Marketing an invasive species could make it so popular that "individuals would raise or release the fish" where they did not already exist, Fellows cautioned, potentially intensifying the already massive problem.

Kramer is concerned that marketing lionfish as a food choice might increase the number of traps on reefs, which could trap other fish as well. He said the spear fishing was the most sustainable way to catch lionfish, which are reef dwellers.

To increase the culinary demand for invasive species, Food and Water Watch has teamed up with the James Beard Foundation and Kerry Heffernan, the chef at the South Gate restaurant in NYC, to devise recipes using the invaders. At a recent taste test, Asian carp ceviche and braised lionfish filet were on the menu.

Surprisingly, lionfish tasted great. The group had to hire fishermen to catch the pests. Heffernan said he would consider putting them on his menu and was looking forward to getting some European green crabs to try in some crab recipes.

The Nature Conservancy last summer sponsored a lionfish food fair in the Bahamas. On the menu: Lionfish fritters and more. They offered fishermen $11 per pound and got an abundant supply. Lionfish arrived in the Caribbean in the early 1990s and are spreading rapidly. They are voracious eaters and will even eat juveniles of native fish.

Lionfish can carry ciguatoxin, which causes vomiting and neurological problems, so they cannot be fished in waters where the microbe that produces the toxin is found. The fish's venomous spines must also be removed before sale.


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