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If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Eat ‘Em

It turns out that being good for the environment and eating tons of animal products aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. It just depends on which animals you eat. So instead of chowing down on pork, beef or tuna, what about eating an invasive species?

The idea of eating an invasive species to control it isn’t a new one: over the years, people have proposed everything from gnawing on squirrel (in the UK, where the gray squirrel was outcompeting the native red squirrel) to jellyfish (in Japan, where swarms of giant jellies destroyed fishermen’s nets and poisoned potential catch). So why hasn’t the concept caught on? And is there hope?


Photo courtesy NOAA


A native of the western Pacific, the lionfish was released from fish tanks in southern Florida sometime in the late 1980s. Now it’s been found in North Carolina, the Caribbean, and even South America. It reproduces quickly and eats baby snapper and grouper, which are commercially viable species in addition to being reef stewards–so an increase in lionfish means a decrease in coral reef health. Furthermore, predators in the caribbean don’t see a lionfish and think “food”–they see its venomous spines and think “yikes!”

Luckily enough for humans, though, the fish supposedly tastes great–it’s said to have a mild taste, with firm, white flesh. Environmental groups like the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) have been monitoring lionfish populations in the Bahamas since 1994; last year, REEF started an event called the Lionfish Derby that encouraged divers to spear lionfish–and then eat them.

Great for the Bahamas, but this year’s derby collected just 941 lionfish — and if we’re truly going to eat our way to sustainability, we’ll need a lot more lionfish. That may be why the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been working with a distributor on a new ‘Eat Lionfish’ campaign to get the fish to go mainstream. And it may be why the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary allows divers to take lionfish from most parts of the sanctuary without any permit (and to get a permit for the few remaining spots, you just have to complete a safety course).

But lionfish aren’t easy to catch. You’ve got to get in the water and spear them. And there’s still the matter of those pesky spines, which pack enough venom to really ruin your day.

One guy thinks he’s solved both those problems.

Gregg Waugh’s the founder and president of SafeSpear, LLC. He grew up in the Bahamas and spent a lot of time diving. “Seeing lionfish just wasn’t a part of my experience, and it’s not a natural part of that ecosystem,” he said. He’s about to launch a lionfish hunting kit that, he says, takes all the risk out of lionfish hunting and makes it easy enough for a novice to do.

The SafeSpear kit includes a pole spear, safety gloves, a gripper, and spring-operated spine clippers. (Once you remove the spines, there’s no risk of stinging, says Waugh.) It also includes a filet knife, a recipe book, and–just in case you do get stung–a first aid kit. The spear has a plunger on the end so hunters can plop the fish into a bag or bucket without ever touching it. “We wanted to make it as safe as possible so the largest number of people could target lionfish,” he says.

Admittedly, it’s not cheap: the SafeSpear kit costs $350, “and we’re running into challenges, that some of the fishermen in these Caribbean countries can’t afford that much,” Waugh says. So for now the product might be more of a draw for tourists, which, again, doesn’t necessarily help lionfish filets and lionfish sticks get to your local grocer’s at any scale.

Asian Carp


Photo courtesy NOAA

Perhaps best known for their jumping ability, Asian carp were imported to the U.S. by catfish farmers in the 1970s to clean out algae from their fish ponds. When the ponds flooded in the 1990s, the carp overflowed into the Mississippi river basin. The carp have been found as far north as Minnesota, have been sighted just outside Lake Michigan, and are crowding out native species. Folks have proposed eating them for years, even suggesting we rename it to “Kentucky tuna,” “silverfin,” or “winged silver roughy.”

Problem: They’re bony, which American consumers don’t like, and some have called the bottomfeeders’ flesh tasteless. (The old joke goes: the proper way to cook a carp is on a cedar plank. When it’s done, throw away the carp and eat the plank.) But in China, the fish are considered good eating–partially because it’s easier to avoid bones when you’re using chopsticks–so we may end up exporting our invasives back to whence they came. Actually, mllions of pounds of the fish are already exported every year, but since there are just so many carp, that’s hardly making a dent. A new deal to export 30 million pounds of carp by next year may actually make a difference.


Photo courtesy USGS


These ugly swamp rodents were imported into the South from Argentina for their pelts, but when the demand for fur dried up, they escaped into the bayous, wreaking havoc on marshes by eating the roots of plants that prevent erosion. In the ’90s, the government of Louisiana tried to curb the population by encouraging people to eat the rodents; the campaign failed, largely because people were reluctant to munch on what looked like a very large rat or greasy beaver. They supposedly taste like beaver, which may mean more to you than it does to me. Perhaps ironically, a strategy that may be making inroads in nutria population control is to turn the fur into clothing and the scary, scary teeth into jewelry–the idea that got nutria into the country to begin with.

–Rachel Kaufman