HOUSTON (AP) - It
seems like a simple proposition: American lakes, rivers and offshore waters
are filling up with destructive fish and crustaceans originally from other
parts of the world, many of them potential sources of food.
So why not control
these invasive populations by getting people to eat them?
The idea has gained
momentum recently from the lionfish, which invaded the Gulf of Mexico but
was successfully marketed to restaurants and today appears to be in decline.
But businesses and
scientists have struggled to repeat this apparent triumph with other
species. Some, such as Asian carp, are not appetizing to Americans. Others,
like feral hogs, reproduce too quickly to make a dent. And then there’s the
question of whether turning them into sought-after cuisine undermines the
larger goal of eliminating them.
species is not a silver bullet,” said Laura Huffman, the Nature
Conservancy’s director in Texas. But it can still be “a way to get people
engaged in the topic and in the solution.”
The lionfish, a
striped saltwater species with a flowing mane of venomous spines, is native
to the Indo-Pacific Ocean and was first spotted in parts of the Gulf and off
the East Coast a little more than 10 years ago. The skilled predators damage
reefs and devour native fish, and they are eaten only by sharks - or larger
People soon learned
that beneath the lionfish’s spiky skin lies a buttery, flaky meat that is
perfect for ceviche, taco filler or as an alternative to lobster. After a
few years of intense fishing and brisk fillet sales, the population is
But similar efforts
targeting feral hogs, Asian carp and the Himalayan blackberry have been far
invasive species extends beyond the environment. A Cornell University study
concluded that they caused more than $120 billion in economic harm annually.
Feral hogs cost Texas alone about $52 million in agricultural damage every
year, according to a study by Texas A&M University.
Asian carp were
introduced to the United States about 30 years ago. Now they have infested
dozens of waterways, including the Mississippi. The Army Corps of Engineers
is weighing several options to try to keep the voracious eaters out of the
Great Lakes, where they could threaten other marine life and the fishing
In China, the carp
are a delicacy and even threatened in the Yangtze River. But they have
attracted little interest among U.S. consumers, and the few Americans 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, an attempt to deal with hunger and
help combat the invasive fish problem. A southern Illinois company had hoped
to start packaging frozen Asian carp. And Kentucky organized a commercial
fishing tournament to encourage anglers to go after them.
But none of those
efforts was enough to stir demand for the creatures.
Another obstacle is
concern that a successful carp industry could derail the original goal of
getting rid of the fish.
“We’d all be better
off in terms of economics if we could sell our native fish,” Chapman said.
The lionfish and
the giant tiger prawn, a crustacean with a massive appetite that can grow to
be a foot long, proved to be more palatable, Chapman said.
The tiger prawn has
been found in the northern Gulf of Mexico, where scientists fear it could
harm the multimillion-dollar crab, shrimp and oyster markets.
Like the lionfish,
this prawn has been successfully turned into gourmet food, because it is
similar to shrimp, Huffman said.
practicalities can affect invasive plants. The Himalayan blackberry is known
for crowding out other shrubs and reducing the size of pastures. Although it
is delicious, it’s also thorny and requires time-consuming hand picking that
makes large-scale harvesting difficult.
Feral hogs can also
be tasty, but they reproduce so quickly that hunting doesn’t make a dent in
Gaston, chef at Haven and Cove Restaurant in Houston, started serving
lionfish because he wanted to help reduce its population in the Gulf. Now
the taste alone keeps it on the menu.
“It’s light and
airy and fluffy,” said Gaston, who especially likes to use lionfish in
ceviche and other raw-fish dishes because it blends well with spices and
marinades. “People are scared of fishy fish. This one in particular is very
mild, very easy going on the palette.”
But lionfish are
hard to catch, and the dwindling population means Gaston and other
restaurateurs have not been able to get any for weeks.
For now, the fish
are individually speared and can be sold for about $16 a pound, said David
Johnson, founder and owner of Traditional Fisheries, one of the few U.S.
lionfish suppliers. Yet Johnson said he can’t keep up with demand,
especially since many Mexican restaurants replace the crustacean with
lionfish during lobster’s offseason.
In fact, an event
at the Texas State Aquarium had to be cancelled last month when organizers
couldn’t find enough lionfish for the 100-person dinner.
So Johnson, who
lives in Wayzata, Minnesota, is designing a “smart trap” that would allow
fishermen to catch lionfish en masse without netting other species. He hopes
the traps will be in use by year’s end.
proven that it does work,” Johnson said of the effort to turn lionfish into
a delectable dish. “In Cozumel, for example, we’re having trouble finding
lionfish because they’ve fished so many.”