The most effective method for dealing with the peskiest of invasive species: Turn them into dinner.
Puerto Rico is giving new meaning to the phrase “eating your problems.” Officials recently unveiled an aggressive plan to eliminate some of the island’s peskiest invasive species—by turning them into dinner.
Puerto Rico is overrun with iguanas—more than 4 million of them, a figure that exceeds the country’s human population. While the charismatic reptiles are popular with tourists, they’re causing some sizable problems. Iguanas, which can grow to be six feet long, burrow under buildings, damaging foundations that then require costly repairs. The critters also build nests near power plants, causing blackouts. They destroy crops. They even sun themselves on airport runways: Puerto Rico spends about $80,000 a year just to exterminate iguanas at San Juan’s Luis Munoz Marin International Airport.
While iguanas are endangered throughout most of their Latin American homes, the lizards aren’t actually native to Puerto Rico. They’re invasive species with no natural predators in the country. The reptiles were first spotted on the island in the 1970s, the result of residents releasing pets, and their populations have been growing steadily ever since.
That’s where the government’s extermination effort comes in. Puerto Rican officials want to make the island’s iguanas toast by, well, putting them on toast. The Department of Natural Resources is working on a plan to train volunteers to slaughter the invasive iguanas, bring them to a processing center, and ship the meat over to the U.S. Iguana meat is especially popular among Asian and Latino immigrants. If the scheme is greenlighted by other government agencies, Americans could see Puerto Rican iguana meat selling for about $6 a pound—more costly than most chicken.
Puerto Rico isn’t the only place exterminating its pests by sticking a fork in them. The “invasivore” movement—the idea that we can mitigate invasive species’ disastrous impacts on the environment and economy by turning them into commodity foods—is gaining traction throughout the U.S. Check out which other animals and plants are making appearances on dinner plates near you.
Asian carp, a species of Chinese fish, first made its way to the United States in the 1970s, when they were imported by Southerners to help clean up algae-filled ponds. When the ponds flooded, the fish escaped, making their way into the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The fish’s population quickly exploded. Asian carp, which have few natural predators in the U.S. and possess voracious appetites, have devastated fishing industries on the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. Officials fear that if the species find a way into the Great Lakes, they’ll quickly start gobbling up plankton and starving out native species, destroying the waterways’ ecosystem and fishing industry.
While governments and businesses have created complex plans to control America’s Asian carp population, others are managing the problem by pushing the fish into the food supply. Notable chefs, some of whom have rebranded Asian carp as “silverfin,” have started serving up the fish, which is quite high in healthy Omega-3s and low in mercury. Chef Phillip Foss prepared the fish at his high-end Chicago eatery. And Illinois, one of a dozen states Asian carp have invaded, launched a campaign last year to distribute carp meat throughout the state’s food banks.
Kudzu is known as “the vine that ate the south.” The fast-growing Japanese plant was grown in the South in the 1930s to control erosion, but officials didn’t realize that kudzu makes Little Shop of Horrors’Audrey II look like a placid begonia. By the 1950s, kudzu vines were attacking 100-foot-tall trees, pulling down telephone poles, and blanketing parked cars. The invasive vine now covers more than 7 million acres from the Carolinas to Texas and costs upwards of $500 million a year to control.
Kudzu grows rapidly, and its roots can stretch 10 feet deep, so chopping the plant down or killing it with herbicides can be ineffective. But Southerners with thickets of kudzu vines in their backyards are turning lemons into lemonade—or rather, invasive plants into summer salads. A few kudzu cookbooks have already been published. The plant’s leaves can be used much like spinach—as additions to salads, quiches, and pasta dishes. Kudzu root powder is sold in many natural food stores as a thickener for soups and sauces. Some believe that the root also has medicinal properties, as described in “The Book of Kudzu: A Culinary and Healing Guide.”
Lake Tahoe has a problem with invasive species setting up shop in its waters, including signal crayfish. The lobster-like critters first established a population in Tahoe in the 1930s, and more than 220 million now call the lake home. The crustaceans have few native predators in the lake, and their presence has been linked to an increase in algal blooms, a decrease in native invertebrate populations, and diminished water clarity.
Soon, the pesky crayfish could be coming to a seafood joint near you: The Nevada Wildlife Commission passed a regulation in December that would allow Lake Tahoe’s first commercial harvest of signal crayfish. The crayfish—or “crawdad”—are reported to be quite tasty, and can be peeled and eaten just like shrimp.
These are hardly the only plants and animals that “invasivores” munch on. From lionfish in Florida to Northern snakehead in Maryland to Asian shore crabs in Connecticut, hungry diners are doing their part to save local ecosystems from invasive species.
Killing and eating animals is always an unsavory and divisive topic. But in the case of invasive species, letting these creatures live means allowing harm to come to native plants and animals, a situation that can throw entire ecosystems dangerously out of whack and cripple local economies. Turning an invasive plant or animal into a nutritious food item is a sustainable—and often yummy—way of dealing with a complex problem.
Now that you’ve learned all about the invasivore movement, there’s just one more question: Do you feel like iguana tonight?