Menus Subscribe Search

The Tastiest Enemy: Eating Invasive Species

• May 27, 2011 • 4:00 AM

The idea that if you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em has found new resonance in the battle against one particularly voracious invasive species, the lionfish.

Bristling with venomous spines and possessed of a voracious appetite, lionfish have joined a growing list of invasive species infiltrating U.S. land and water. But an unusual partnership of conservationists and cooks argue that some of the best weapons to attack these invaders are the knife and fork.

For species that have proven almost impossible to contain, whether feral boar or creeping kudzu, advocates embrace an “if you can’t beat them, eat them” ethos. Dubbed invasivores, a portmanteau of ‘locavore’ and ‘invasive,’ the catchphrase proudly puts invasive species on the menu.

In a networked world, flora and fauna are on the move. Hitching rides in the belly of container ship or a tourist’s suitcase, or released into wild intentionally (like kudzu) or accidentally (like snakeheads), invasive species are a global problem.

Thus far, the U.S. Geological Survey has identified 6,500 foreign organisms that pose a threat to habitats and wildlife in the United States. Invasives cost the U.S. economy an estimated $132 billion each year, often outpace rare and endangered species in competition for resources and can even harm human health.

In many cases, though, a new species might be both a demonized invasive and a saintly import; human capriciousness turns today’s novelty pet, food or garden item into tomorrow’s alien pest.

“What we define as invasive is in part value driven, and values change through time. So what we consider to be invasive now might be considered acceptable or even be beneficial in the future. And vice versa,” said Cindy Kolar, a scientist with the USGS.

With that in mind, efforts are afoot to snatch a victory from the jaws of the lionfish by enlisting sports fishermen, commercial divers and chefs to help out.

Popular among aquarium enthusiasts for their zebra stripes and hardiness, lionfish are raising major concerns among marine conservationists in Florida. Native to the Indo-Pacific ocean and the Red Sea, lionfish have no known predators in the Atlantic.

”It’s a perfect invader. Not having evolved in this ocean it has many advantages that allow it to flourish,” said Laddie Akins, director of special operations at the Reef Environmental Education Foundation. REEF is a nonprofit group of civic-minded divers perhaps best known for their ongoing fish surveys.

Accounts of lionfish in U.S. waters lurch between urban legend and provable fact. Numerous sources report six lionfish were first seen in the Biscayne Bay in 1992, apparently having been freed shortly after Hurricane Andrew damaged a beachside aquarium. But then pet owners may have released lionfish into the ocean near Miami during the 1980s and ’90s.

Regardless of how they arrived, their presence is felt — and growing. Researchers with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration examining the stomachs of lionfish have found the remains of 50 species of other fish, ranging from commercially valuable grouper, snapper and crustaceans to fish that groom coral reefs, such as the algae-eating parrotfish.

Lionfish reach maturity within two years and reproduce frequently, producing up to 30,000 eggs each time per spawn. Ocean currents have carried those eggs north to Bermuda and through parts of the Caribbean, Akins surmises.

REEF has declared open season on this formidable predator at the top of the food chain by adding one more link — humans — in hopes of catching, killing and eating the Atlantic lionfish out of existence.

While the group has organized fishing derbies to put a price on the lionfish’s head, it’s also tried to create a demand for the fish as a delicacy.

In December 2010, REEF published the Lionfish Cookbook, a primer detailing the cooking and preparation of lionfish. It is perhaps the first marine species to have an entire cookbook dedicated to raising its demand while reducing its supply. Meanwhile, NOAA also encourages lionfish consumption — and, it hopes, depletion — with its Eat Lionfish campaign.

REEF’s project is attracting prominent chefs in Washington, D.C., lured by the prospect of working with new ingredients. Recently, Xavier Deshayes, executive chef at the Ronald Reagan Building, joined a lionfish derby in the Bahamas as part of an “ocean to plate” lecture series hosted by the National Aquarium.

“It’s very exciting for a chef to know exactly where his fish is coming from,” he said. “It’s a completely different experience than getting your fish from a supplier.”

A native of Beziers, France, Deshayes began his culinary career regularly visiting farmers markets with his restaurateur father. When he saw the lionfish, he said, he immediately saw the potential of a fish similar to the Mediterranean’s rascasse — the essential ingredient in bouillabaisse, a sublime fish stew that borders on the sacred to French cooking and culinary traditions.

According to Deshayes once filleted lionfish are similar in flavor and texture to halibut, a seafood staple that is flash frozen and shipped to high-end restaurants across the United States. Following that model, he suggested, lionfish entrees could be sold at prices comparable to Pacific cod at $25 to $30 per plate.

Although they are tasty, Deshayes fears lionfish probably are not suitable for his dining establishment, a high-volume restaurant and catering service. “Lionfish would be a hard sell” to diners more accustomed to tamer fare, he said, and, at best, would be served only occasionally.

The idea of eating invasive species isn’t new. Take the weed kudzu, first introduced to North America at the U.S.’s 1876 Centennial Exposition. Initially, kudzu captured the imaginations of gardeners and later agronomists who extolled its use as a desirable cover crop to prevent erosion. Now the too-fast-growing vine is rampant in the Southeast, coating 7 million acres. But the so-called green menace had inspired cookbooks, recipes and more than a few harvest festivals.

As a meme, the idea of eating invasive species may have staying power, especially among adventurous gourmands willing step beyond the comfortable boundaries of farmers markets and crunchy food co-ops. Recent books such as The Scavengers Guide to Haute Cuisine, Hank Shaw’s pending title Hunt, Gather, Cook, and Jackson Landers’ blog The Locavore Hunter demonstrate moxie that’s part Michael Pollan, part Davy Crockett.

Enrique Gili
Enrique Gili lives, writes, and surfs in Ocean Beach, Calif. He covers the intersection of environmental issues and pop culture for regional magazines in the Southland and beyond. Send your thoughts, ideas, or tips to gili92107@gmail.com.

More From Enrique Gili

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.