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Summer's Coolest Culinary Trend: Eating Invasive Species

Welcome to the invasive species smorgasborg! Let's eat them before they eat us.

Last week, I attended an event at New York City’s famous James Beard House that took me back to Yellowstone National Park.

Around this time last summer, I was on a tour boat on Lake Yellowstone with my family, where we learned that lake trout, a non-native species introduced around 1995 (presumably by an angler), had grown extremely problematic for the ecosystem of the lake – in particular, for the prized cutthroat trout, which is easily preyed upon and out-competed by the larger lake trout.

Not only was there no fishing limit on lake trout but in fact,  the only rule about catching them was that if you weren’t going to eat them, you had to kill them before throwing them back. According to our tour guide, you could cart a fresh-caught lake trout to any of the park’s restaurants for professional cooking and earn a pat on the back from the chef and staff.

Why did my visit to the Manhattan-based James Beard House inspire me to recall that ecological factoid from my visit to the nation’s oldest national park? Last Wednesday night, Kerry Heffernan, head chef for Central Park’s South Gate Restaurant, prepared a delectable feast based on four exotic invasive varieties of seafood: green crab (known to most fisherfolk as bait for blackfish), Asian carp, lionfish and blue tilapia.

The brainchild behind the event was Washington, D.C.- based Food & Water Watch, producers of the Smart Seafood Guide. In partnership with James Beard House, the watchdog organization had invited Chef Kerry to prepare the invasives Iron Chef-style – with a little more than a day’s notice. This isn’t much time to get acquainted with the four exotic new ingredients, but Heffernan managed the challenge admirably, at least, according to this amateur seafood lover.

I’ll be honest — I’d expected something that might challenge my sense of adventure a little more–something slimy, maybe– but all four dishes were delicious. Food porn isn’t my thing, so I’ll spare you the details and instead fill you in on what drew me to the event.

  1. I like seafood, but. ..
  2. even with productions like Food & Water Watch’s Smart Seafood Guide , Blue Ocean Institute’s Seafood Guide  and Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide , I still find the “rules” around seafood difficult to navigate, mostly because:
  3. Seafood is often not well-labeled in supermarkets or restaurants.
  4. Harvesting seafood takes a toll on the environment, and/or…
  5. Popular varieties of seafood are often overfished, and/or…
  6. The seafood industry is largely unsustainable because corporate fishing enterprises out-compete local fishermen, which may keep costs down but takes a valuable source of protein away from local populations and hurts smaller markets, and this doesn’t jibe with my values.
  7. There are a few fish that I like and feel good about eating, like U.S. farmed catfish and oysters, but I still worry about health hazards related to consumption of seafood.

As I made my way through the famously small James Beard kitchen, up the stairs, (past the shower where Beard supposedly enjoyed showering outdoors), rubbing elbows with food writers, chefs and staff from Food & Water Watch, while sampling Chef Kerry’s tasty creations, I got to feeling hopeful.

Aside from the Yellowstone example, there are many cases of invasive species wreaking havoc, on water and on land, on ecosystems around the globe. Eating them would seem not only to mitigate harm, but to actively improve those “invaded” ecosystems. With so many proverbial genies let out of so many proverbial bottles – is it possible to fish and market and eat our way out of a situation that, at least in part, we’ve fished and marketed and eaten our way into?

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