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What Would Nature Do?
Issue 64 Cover

 

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Planet  |  Ecosystems  |  Food

Invasive Species: If You Can’t Beat ’em, Eat ’em

Species like green crabs, feral pigs, snakeheads, and zebra mussels cost $120 billion a year in damage. For a cheaper alternative, try eating them.

Invasive Species Collage

I spent the summer traveling the coast from Cape Cod to Newfoundland about a decade ago. It was a beautiful seascape, but I was there because an invasion was underway—by the European green crab, one of many invasive species causing ecological havoc in North America.

64 Cover

Invasives—such as green crabs, feral pigs, snakeheads, and zebra mussels—prey on native animals and plants. They eat their food, wreck their homes, and are among the top causes of extinction. I was trying to find out how the green crab had extended its range north to the Canadian Maritimes: by ballast rocks in the 19th century or ballast water in the late 20th?  (It was both as it turned out.) As I flipped over beach cobbles to collect crabs for DNA analysis, I thought perhaps there was something else I could do. So one afternoon I collected a few green crabs and brought them back to the inn. Following instructions from Stalking the Blue-eyed Scallop, I prepared the green crabs and sautéed them in butter. Fresh from the sea, the delicate flaky meat beat any store-bought crab I’ve had, claws down. I’ve been an invasivore ever since.

There are lots of examples in nature, from wolves to weed-eating moths, where predators help keep their prey in check. And consider the environmental impact of human appetites: Atlantic cod, bison, and Pismo clams have all but disappeared. We managed to dispatch all 5 billion passenger pigeons—many of them smoked, stewed, fried, or baked in pot pies—by 1914. So why not put this destructive streak to good use for a change?

In the United States, invasive species cost about $120 billion a year in damage and the price of control measures like herbicides and pesticides. Eating them is an earth-friendly alternative embraced by the rapidly growing invasivore movement. I recently stopped at Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Conn., where chef Bun Lai has an entire invasive species menu that replaces less sustainable foods like shrimp and tuna. His popcorn Asian shore crabs were a fun novelty, the spear-caught lionfish sashimi divine.

Adding invasive species to our plates is not the whole solution. We need strong controls on transporting species, and when a new species does arrive, a rapid response is essential (and typically requires more than a knife and fork). But for those species that have already gotten through the gates, why not pile ’em on our plates?


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Joe Roman is author of Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act, editor ’n chef at  eattheinvaders.org, and a fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont.

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