We Can’t Eat Our Way out of the Invasive Species Crisis
Lionfish are eye-catching creatures with dramatic, deep-red stripes and flowing fins studded with long, sharp spines. They originated in the tropical Pacific and Indian oceans, and it used to be that the only place in the northern hemisphere where these gaudy fish could be seen was in saltwater aquariums—but no longer. It is believed that an aquarium owner or two released some off the coast of Florida a few decades ago. Today they have proliferated throughout the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and parts of the Atlantic, leaving behind a trail of destruction.
The carnivores have voracious appetites—lionfish eat constantly and can ingest fish up to two-thirds their own length. They have been shown to wipe out more than three-quarters of young native fish in a coral reef in a matter of weeks. Stripped of biodiversity, these ecosystems can become desolate underwater deserts.
As with any invasive species, a major obstacle to containing lionfish is that they’re extremely efficient breeders. A single female can produce 2 million eggs per year. In their new waters, they also lack natural predators—with their venom-filled spines, they easily repel enemies—except, that is, if humans intervene. People could harvest these destructive nonnatives for food. Lad Akins, director of special projects at the Florida-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation, believes this is an important part of solving the crisis. “We need to do our best to control what we created,” he said.
In the last few years, the notion of dining on lionfish and other invasives, such as feral hogs and sun-greedy plants such as bastard cabbage, as a way to keep them in check has captured the popular imagination. “If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em” is the mantra. An increasing number of restaurateurs and chefs are drawing attention to intruding species, often spotlighting lionfish. The media and conservation groups have chimed in too. A recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek extolled the practice of “edible conservation” for “taking sustainability one step further.” In September, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program gave blue catfish, an invasive found in the Chesapeake Bay, its highest sustainability rating.
This is a tantalizing solution because it is so elegant: Redirect human powers, so often environmentally disastrous, and use them for good. After all, people need to eat, and if an invasive species tastes good, then building consumer demand and creating a market seems like the perfect fix. More customers should drive entrepreneurs to devise efficient, inexpensive ways to deliver nonindigenous species to the market. It’s a tidy notion, but this approach is fraught with unintended consequences: Unwanted species can be difficult to harvest and, in the case of lionfish, labor-intensive and dangerous to prepare.
On a recent sunny afternoon, 70 pounds of lionfish arrived at Norman’s Cay, a Caribbean restaurant on New York City’s Lower East Side. The showy creatures, caught the day before off the east coast of Florida, came via FedEx overnight. Restaurateur Ryan Chadwick started Norman’s Cay two years ago in part with the intention of serving lionfish. “As we were opening the restaurant, I was learning more about the damage lionfish were doing in the Bahamas,” Chadwick said. “I thought, ‘How cool would it be to serve it?’ ”
Henley Miller, the executive chef, lifted the first of the fish from the box. It must be handled singly and gingerly—although the fish is dead, each of its 18 spines still carries a venomous hit. Miller first cleaned a lionfish four years ago, back home in Jamaica. He wasn’t as careful then and punctured his middle finger, leaving his hand swollen and throbbing for the better part of a day. “If it stings you when it’s alive, your whole hand can blow up to twice the size,” he said. If the chef got stuck, a restaurant could be in big trouble for the night.
Working on a white cutting board, Miller propped a fish upright, gripping it by the base of its dorsal fins. With meticulous movements, he used a pair of scissors to snip off the six-inch spines and then moved on to clip the remaining spikes from the belly and sides. Only then could he gut the fish. Slicing open the stomach of the 14-incher, Miller pulled out an intact juvenile snapper. “They eat everything,” said Chadwick, looking on. The restaurateur, an avid scuba diver who frequents the Bahamas, wants to help rein in the lionfish disaster. “I’ve seen the damage they can do,” he said. An important strategy for controlling the invasive, Chadwick believes, is stoking consumer demand. If more customers clamor for more lionfish, commercial fishermen will catch more and suppliers will stock more, the logic goes.
But, as is true with many invasives, lionfish are expensive. They’re hard to clean, but even more significant, they’re labor-intensive to catch. Because lionfish congregate around underwater structures such as coral reefs and shipwrecks, it’s impossible to bring them in with nets and fishing lines, methods that are most effective in open waters. Instead, scuba divers must hunt and spear them one by one.
The fish Miller was preparing at Norman’s Cay had two small holes right where the head and body meet. “That’s a head shot,” said Chadwick. “It’s critical so you don’t damage the filets.” Not only do the harvesters have to know how to scuba dive and have all the gear, but they must be agile with a spear so they hit the 12- to 20-inch fish in just the right spot. It is no wonder lionfish are pricey: Chadwick pays $16 per pound, double the cost for the snapper and grouper the restaurant serves.
“I can sell a plate for $26, but if you do the math, it doesn’t add up,” Chadwick said. “I’m not making any money on this.”
Similar to lionfish, Himalayan blackberries present a thorny issue: While delicious to eat, they are hard to harvest, buried as they are in dense, prickly foliage. The invasive has firmly established itself in the Pacific Northwest, including in Washington, Oregon, and parts of California. “Eating that one is not a great strategy,” said Charlotte Reemts, a vegetation ecologist with The Nature Conservancy in Texas, where the thick briars of berries are beginning to appear.
Other invaders are easier to gather, Reemts said, but they often spread so quickly that eating could only be a small facet of their management. One example is bastard cabbage. Since the drought of 2011, the edible plant has taken off in central and eastern Texas, crowding out native species, notably the bluebonnet, the state flower. Bastard cabbage is in the mustard family and has a peppery, slightly sour kick—it could be marketable. By the time a big enough harvesting and distribution infrastructure could be put in place, though, bastard cabbage would have spread exponentially farther, Reemts said.
“Eating invasives is one tool, and it’s particularly effective as an outreach tool to educate the public, but eating these is not going to solve the problem,” she said.
Duane Chapman, a fish biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and an expert on the nonnative Asian carp, noted that dining on aggressive foreign species has never been done effectively. “It hasn’t been used anywhere in the world that I know of to effectively control an invasive species,” he said.
Other dangers include health risks. The Burmese python, which has infiltrated Florida’s Everglades, has been promoted as a local folk food. One restaurant has sold “Everglades pizza” topped with the snake meat. But scientists have found that this invasive has among the highest levels of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, ever recorded in a living creature.
If an invasive finds a growing constituency, mounting consumer demand can create the incentive to introduce it into new places. This has happened with feral hogs. While the beasts are notorious for their bulldozer-like ability to obliterate a landscape, they are prized by hunters for their meat. Because hunters continue to keep them stocked, the hogs, initially from Russia, now roam 39 states.
Chapman is worried this could happen with Asian carp, a scourge in the Mississippi River and a constant threat to the Great Lakes. If they made it into the lakes, the carp could wipe out native species, diminish biodiversity, and hobble the lakes’ fishing industry, worth $7 billion annually. While they don’t yet have a big following among foodies, carp are considered good eating. “Let’s say I develop a market for Asian carp in Toronto, and getting them from the central United States is too hard for me,” said Chapman. “Maybe I can take some and put them in Lake Michigan and fish them right there,” which would undoubtedly set off ecosystem destruction. “That’s how it could go.”
Chapman isn’t worried unscrupulous businesses will recklessly disseminate lionfish. “They’re too good at spreading on their own,” he said.
The real problem with commercializing lionfish is that catching them is so expensive. The answer, most proponents say, is when enough consumers register their desire for the buttery white fish, more suppliers will enter the market, and that will drive down the price. In the case of lionfish, however, the economic mechanism is not that simple. The manner in which greater demand lowers prices is by suppliers achieving economies of scale, which means streamlining production and increasing volume. That can’t happen with lionfish, because no matter how popular they may become, these spiky creatures still must be speared one at a time.
Most people knowledgeable about lionfish agree that the only solution to the conundrum of high labor costs is to develop a trap that can catch multiple fish at once. Crucially, though, a trap must be selective, meaning it can’t also grab native species. (Otherwise, the device undermines the goal of protecting indigenous marine life.) Thus far, such a design has proved elusive.
The market alone lacks the power to drive down lionfish harvesting costs. The allure of eating our way out of the problem may even distract the public from demanding more comprehensive solutions. Federal and state agencies could be conducting targeted, regular lionfish hunts and committing more fully to creating a trap, said Akins.
“So far this issue has been addressed primarily from the bottom up, by divers and small grassroots groups working to mitigate damage and control lionfish and come up with new ideas,” he added. “The federal and state governments have been very hesitant to jump in with anything significant. They’ve done nothing full scale.”
According to Akins, about 20 people are trying to devise a selective lionfish trap. The restaurateur and entrepreneur Chadwick is also trying, but so far, he’s had no luck. Chadwick’s commitment to the cause runs deeper still. He’s part owner of Lionfish Atlantic, the only dedicated lionfish distributor in the country. He serves lionfish at three of his other restaurants: another in New York, one in Aspen, and a third in Nantucket, Massachusetts.
“I’m trying to do all I can,” he said, sitting in the dining room of Norman’s Cay just before the dinner rush. He wants more people to eat the destructive invasive. But when he reflected on the costs of hunting and preparing lionfish, he was somber. “I don’t think we’ll ever make money on lionfish,” he said. “I just want to help out if we can.”