UVM Students Get A Taste Of Invasive Species

May 2, 2017

It's not often you get to eat gourmet food for college credit. One lucky class at the University of Vermont was recently treated to such a meal, but with a twist – the dishes featured invasive species.

About twenty UVM students sat around banquet tables in a hotel conference room, listening to a lecture in their marine ecology and conservation course. But the smell of crab bisque and escargot wafting from the back of the room was distracting them from the slideshow at the front.

Finally, they were ushered to the back of the room where local chef Doug Paine explained the menu.

"These are the European oysters," he said, pointing at a tray of shucked oysters and bowls of hot sauce and mignonette. The bisque he described as "pretty simple: green crab, tomato and brandy."

And then there were the tiny, green snails, nestled like marbles in a big warming pot. Paine showed the students how to take a toothpick and spear the body of the snail and pull it from the shell. Melted butter and garlic was close at hand.

Paine is the executive chef at Hotel Vermont's restaurant, Juniper. He's also the chef at Bleu, the seafood restaurant next door. But none of these delicacies he served up for the students are on his menu – yet. They're all wild invasive pests, brought to professor Joe Roman's class by oyster farmer John Brawley.

An attendee of the invasive species tasting event spears the body of a periwinkle, which is done in order to remove it from the shell. Other dishes served included European oysters and a green crab bisque.
Credit Jane Lindholm / VPR

Brawley farms eastern oysters off the coast of Massachusetts, but finds invasive European oysters hanging around with his domesticated ones. Green crabs are all along the Atlantic Coast, and though they're small, they are doing a lot of damage. They eat native crabs, demolish normal algae, and go after clams and oysters.

And those little snails are periwinkles, found in every tide pool and rocky shoreline along the Atlantic. They've been in the gulf of Maine for more than 100 years and in Virginia since the 1970s, and Roman says they are one of the species of most concern as far as damaging local marine ecology.

"It's changed the diversity, the abundance and the distribution of lots of animal species, as well as plant species," Roman tells his students while their brows furrow as they try to stab the tiny snails and pull their corkscrew bodies out of their tiny shells.

"I would never encourage people to spread invasive species because they're good to eat. This is a last resort." – Joe Roman, UVM conservation biologist

Periwinkles eat native algae and they actually eat eggs of native snails. They're completely uncontrolled – but they're delicious, so why not eat them? 

"I would never encourage people to spread invasive species because they're good to eat," Roman emphasizes. "This is a last resort."

An image pops up on the projection screen at the front of the room. It's a recipe for spaghetti and periwinkles. It includes 3 cloves of garlic, some olive oil and parsley, plum tomatoes from the garden and 2 cups of periwinkles in shells. It was a recipe Roman's own grandmother used to make.

"It's delicious – I hope you guys are enjoying the meal," he says to the class. "What I encourage you guys to do is next time you're at the ocean is to forage for these guys and take them out and try them at home."

Professor Joe Roman's presentation at the class meal featured this recipe for spaghetti and periwinkles, a dish his grandmother used to make.
Credit Courtesy Joe Roman

Jordyn Chace, a junior from Maryland studying environmental science, was wowed by the periwinkles.  She had never tried a periwinkle before and didn't realize that these familiar crabs and snails were doing damage to her familiar landscape. Chace took note of Roman's recipes and is inspired to head to the beach.

"We were saying that we're going to go out and harvest our own periwinkles after this," she said as her classmates nodded.

Becky Nesnevich, a junior from Chicago, tried an oyster for the first time, getting advice from her friends in how to slurp it down.

"It was awesome," she says. "It was cool. Not as scary as it looked."

"We're going to go out and harvest our own periwinkles after this." – Jordyn Chace, UVM environmental science student

Nesnevich says she doesn't eat meat or seafood for sustainability reasons, but the idea of eating invasive species appeals to her. "If this is a way that I could eat seafood, then I would totally do it," she says.

That's music to professor Roman's ear.

"Here's an example of where I want people to be out there collecting more," Roman says. "Often, as a conservationist, you're always trying to control people from eating species. Here's an example where you really want to encourage it."

And it's not limited to marine species. Roman says there are lots of plants and animals in Vermont that are also both invasive and delicious.

"Burdock, dandelions," he lists. "We have invasive crayfish. There's white perch in the lake. There [are] lots of species that are open and taste amazing."

Roman says it's unlikely that we'll be able to eradicate any invasive species just by eating them, but he points to invasive lionfish in the Caribbean as an example of one species that's starting to see some significant declines in areas where it's being fished for food.

Plus, Roman points out, what's the harm? At the very least it's delicious. And, best case scenario, you're helping your local ecosystem survive.

Broadcast on Vermont Edition on Tuesday, May 2, 2017.