October 20, 2016
Can The US Eliminate Invasive Species By Eating Them?

Currently across America, lakes, rivers and offshore waters are teeming with invasive species; aggressive fish and crustaceans originally from other parts of the world that eat and multiply so fast that they are starving out the indigenous fauna.

Many of these invasive species are potential sources of food, raising the question - Why not control these invasive populations by getting people to eat them?

The idea to eat invasive species has gained momentum recently from the sucsuccessful management of invasive lionfish, a species which invaded the Gulf of Mexico. Originating from the Indo-Pacific Ocean, the lionfish was first spotted in parts of the Gulf and off the East Coast approximately 10 years ago. Armed with a voracious appetite and a flowing mane of venomous quills, these skilled predators damage reefs and devour native fish, and they are eaten only by sharks — or larger lionfish.

However, beneath the invasive lionfish's spiky skin lies a buttery, flaky meat that is perfect for ceviche, taco filler or as an alternative to lobster. The lionfish was successfully marketed to restaurants and the population is dropping.

But, similar efforts targeting other invasive species have been far less successful.

Asian Carp have overrun dozens of US waterways, including the Mississippi River. In China, the carp are a delicacy and even threatened in the Yangtze River. However, American consumers have no appetite for the invasive fish, and the few US fishermen who make a living on carp export most of their catch.

"The fish are good eating if they're healthy, which they're not always," said Duane Chapman, a research fish biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Columbia, Missouri, noting this is an issue in the Missouri River. "Here the fish are pretty much not edible because they're so skinny."

In Chicago, a group started to feed the fish to the homeless in an attempt to deal with hunger and help combat the invasive species. The state of Kentucky organized a commercial fishing tournament to encourage anglers to go after them.

Neither of these ideas was enough to stir interest in the species. Even if they succeed, it could end up backfiring - a successful carp industry could derail the original goal of getting rid of the invasive fish.

Damage from these invasive creatures extends beyond the environmental impact. A Cornell University study concluded that invasive species cause more than $120 billion in economic harm every year.

Feral hogs cost Texas alone about $52 million in agricultural damage annually, according to a study by Texas A&M University. Efforts to control the invasive pigs have failed, largely due to the fact that the wild hogs breed too fast for humans to even make a dent in the species' population.

"Eating invasive species is not a silver bullet," said Laura Huffman, the Nature Conservancy's director in Texas, adding that it can still be "a way to get people engaged in the topic and in the solution."