Eating Invasive Species to Save the Environment

There’s a new(ish) trend in environmental circles which is sort of a best of all worlds blend of policy, incentive, and community involvement. Struggling with growing numbers of invasive species in many regions, whether they’re introduced for a particular reason or accidentally added to the environment, environmentalists recommend a new tactic: eat them. This is, of course, only an option for invasives that are actually edible, which is not all of them, but it amounts to a surprising number since one of the prime reasons to introduce a new species is for food purposes. Once that species gets out of control, one way to deal with it is to use it for its original intended function, as a food item.

It’s unclear how successful this tactic will be; newspapers and magazines discuss this most often from a fisheries perspective, arguing that invasive fish can and should be eaten to protect more fragile native species. It’s an appealing solution; since people enjoy consuming things, and they especially enjoy engaging in hipster foodie activities, attract people with something that calls to their base desires. Now hipsters can swan into restaurants and claim to be doing their part for the environment while bravely eating peculiar food items. Or not so peculiar—after all, many of these organisms were originally introduced as food, even if they’ve become so invasive that they’re treated, effectively, as trash.

Alas, it’s not actually possible to solve this problem by eating it, but it’s certainly a start, argue researchers involved in invasive species control. It certainly highlights issues people might not otherwise think about, and could be a very effective awareness campaign to get members of the general public interested in environmental conservation and habitat restoration. Restaurants that do choose to add invasives to their menus have something interesting to talk about in the informational sidebar, to be certain.

The idea of eating invasives to elimination might, on the surface, sound like a good plan. After all, numerous species were eaten out of existence at various points in history, or were brought very close to it, in the case of organisms like the orange roughy. Yet, the issue with these species wasn’t just that people were eating them in large volumes, but that their reproduction methods couldn’t withstand high harvest rates. Fish that grow slowly and breed infrequently, for example, can be quickly decimated by a few aggressive fishing seasons. Likewise with fragile native plants.

Native species tend to evolve to fill a specific niche, and are to some extent self regulating. They don’t breed quickly or grow rapidly because it wouldn’t be sustainable in their natural environment. When humans enter the environment and start harvesting in large numbers, they simply can’t keep up, and thus it’s not surprising to see population declines. Invasive species lack these natural checks. Being hunted in increasing numbers isn’t necessarily a problem for them because they already grow aggressively and breed regularly.

Which isn’t to say that eating invasive species is a silly, useless trend. Humans can certainly make a dent in the numbers of invasives, which can be an important contribution to habitat protection. And, more importantly, even if harvesting these organisms doesn’t really solve the problem, it does make people aware of the issue. Diners may take up the cause beyond the dinner plate if provided with enough persuasive information, and that could make a difference; they might, for example, support initiatives to limit populations in other ways, such as by introducing birth control to limit reproduction and creating protected habitat to give native species a chance to recover and gain a foothold.

Increasingly, science is something that is not practiced in the ivory tower, at a remove from the general public. It is something that must be taken to the streets, and growing numbers of researchers are moving with that. Instead of making pronouncements from on high, there’s an obligation to inform and educate. The public is curious about science and wants to learn more, wants to play an active role in scientific endeavors. Science also takes place in less of a black box, with members of the public demanding accountability and information about scientific initiatives and projects.

Management of invasive species is an ideal opportunity for public involvement in science. Members of the public have the capacity and willingness to learn about the issue and could play an active, rather than passive, role. Examples of this can be seen in some surprising settings, like the invasive eradication arm of the adopt a highway programme seen in some regions of the United States. Instead of just cleaning up trash, crews also remove invasive species by the side of the road. This doesn’t require a lot of skill, but it does require time and energy, and getting members of the community involved makes them more invested in what they’re doing. When you’re the one who’s been grubbing around in a ditch pulling up gorse seedlings, you tend to support campaigns to get rid of gorse, because you know it up close and personal.

Thus, the suggestion to eat invasive species to help endangered ones may be partially tongue in cheek, and partially serious, but more importantly, it’s educational. It opens a door to greater public understanding of the issues with invasive species in a way that’s accessible and interesting. And, for some, pleasurable; some invasive species are quite tasty and can be prepared in a myriad of ways, an instant culinary reward for taking an interest in the environment and promoting the restoration of native species.