Vermont Biologist On Why You Should Eat Invasive Species

Apr 1, 2014

Oh, those frustrating invasives. From Japanese knotweed to the menacing Asian carp, what to do with these unwanted interlopers? Well, some people say, if you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em! 

Take zebra mussels, a species that has wreaked havoc in Vermont. Since 1993, the mussels have been clogging pipes, encrusting boats and docks, and altering Lake Champlain’s ecological balance.

In 2009, when Mary Watzin, then the dean of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont, spoke with Vermont Edition, she admitted to having sampled the little mollusks.

"My students collected a batch and cooked them and we made zebra mussel pasta," she said. "I don't think the culinary greats have anything to fear, but they wouldn't hurt you if you did eat them. They're a little gritty, and they're very small. So they're not like mussels you eat in a seafood restaurant ... They're just these tiny little rubbery pieces without a ton of flavor."

Not a ringing endorsement, but there are lots of other options out there, says Joe Roman, a conservation biologist and fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at UVM, and the editor and founder of Eat The Invaders, a website and movement dedicated to controlling invasive species by dishing them up on the dinner plate. To begin with, Roman recommends the periwinkle, a marine snail eaten throughout Europe.

If spring ever arrives, Roman says to keep an eye out for day lilies, a common garden plant. "The flower is delicious just before it blooms," he says. "You can pan fry that as well, like a squash blossom."

"When I started with this idea I called up Jacques Pepin, a famous French chef," Roman says. "He said he'd just been out harvesting them with his brother ... They're very simple. Just boil them, and they're quite delicious."

Pepin had been scavenging off the coast of Connecticut. But Roman says there are a wealth of tasty invasives right here in Vermont. A few months ago, in Charlotte, he enjoyed a pan-fried white perch.

And if spring ever arrives, Roman says to keep an eye out for day lilies, a common garden plant. "The flower is delicious just before it blooms," he says. "You can pan fry that as well, like a squash blossom."

Meanwhile, drinks like dandelion beer and dandelion wine can be fermented in spring and enjoyed throughout the year.

And edible invasives aren't just the province of foodies and the environmentally conscious, Roman says. He recently visited Cuba, where the lionfish, an invasive that was introduced in Florida in the 1980s and has made itself unwelcome from Rhode Island all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, is a dietary staple. It's been so heavily fished that it's rare to see a live lionfish in the water; in Florida, they're everywhere.

"[In Cuba], you can see the impact of people going out and eating invasives. That's for necessity, not culinary delicacy, but it's an effective effort nonetheless."

"People are hungry [in Cuba]," says Roman. "There, you can see the impact of people going out and eating invasives. Again, that's for necessity, not culinary delicacy, but it's an effective effort nonetheless."

So, if it's not for survival, is eating invasives merely a gimmicky fad? Not necessarily, Roman says.

"Anytime I go to a restaurant, especially a seafood restaurant, I'm looking at what's on the menu, thinking, 'Is this sustainable, is this good to eat, should I have it, should I not?' With invasives, you pull that off," Roman says. "For the most part, it's going to be a good thing. You're making a … small, but potentially important change in the environment."

And the change might not always be small. Human appetite has wiped out species in the past. Remember the passenger pigeon?

"A couple hundred years ago, [they were] the most common bird in North America, numbered in the billions," Roman says. "By 1914 they were gone, largely because we ate them."

We see similar dwindling numbers in fisheries: "People thought fish were too abundant, the oceans were too big. They really believed that, 100 years ago. Now we know that many species are declining."

"So our appetite can definitely have an impact," Roman says. "The question [with invasives] is, does it become more than a boutique cuisine?"

To learn more about edible invasives and to find recipes for preparing them, visit Joe Roman's website, Eat The Invaders

Broadcast live on Wednesday, April 2 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.