Excuse me, waiter, there’s an invasive species in my soup

Co-authored by Erica Cirino

After a full day looking at dinosaur bones, taxidermy birds and hieroglyphs at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, I walked through the streets of New Haven in the rain to into a warm, rustic little Japanese restaurant feeling ravenous, excited and slightly nervous.

While my official excuse to travel to New Haven, Connecticut, last month was to visit friends, I was really just looking forward to dinner. Dinner at Miya’s Sushi, that is. That’s the best place to order a plate, platter or bowl full of invasive species, a colleague had told me.

I couldn’t resist. Chowing down on alien plants, animals and insects that displace native species we’re trying to conserve? Why not? I reasoned the worst possible result of this adventure could be a bad stomachache. Ethically, as an omnivore, I was ok with this.

Turns out, I’m not alone. Foodies all over the country are sampling invasive species as the movement to consume them in the name of conservation grows. One of the pioneers of this movement is Dr. Joe Roman, biologist and researcher at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont and Hrdy visiting fellow at Harvard University. He’s also “editor ‘n chef” of eattheinvaders.org, a website that advocates for control of invasive species by killing, cooking and eating them.

Roman says he has been interested in studying the affects of invasive species on ecosystems since starting his career as a conservation biologist in the 1990s. But it was later, while working on research for his PhD in the Gulf of Maine in the early 2000s, that he first considered incorporating invasive species into his diet.

“At the time, I was studying the genetics of invasive green crabs,” says Roman, “and while I was flipping rocks in the intertidal it occurred to me that green crabs and periwinkles, invasive snails, presented an opportunity for humans to use their insatiable appetites to good use for a change. By harvesting and eating invaders.”

Green crab. Credit: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CISRO)
Green crab. Credit: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CISRO)

So, Roman, a conservation biologist and self-described foodie went about researching how to serve up the invaders he sought to control. In 2004 he wrote his first piece on eating invasive species, complete with instructions for a four-course invasive-species dinner (including a refreshing kudzu sorbet for dessert). After several more years of researching and testing invasive species recipes, Roman launched eattheinvaders.org.

“Eat the Invaders gave me a chance to discuss the problem of invasive species, without laying on the guilt,” says Roman, who instead likes to teach people about the history of invaders and the damage they cause, and encourage them to embrace collecting wild invasives like green crabs as a novel, helpful way to obtain fresh food.

Invasive animals, plants and insects are a growing problem across the globe, most conservationists agree. They’re species that, through human travel and trade—and in a few cases, species migration—have established populations in regions other than that where they originated. Aquatic invasive species like the green crab often find their way to new regions by clinging onto ships’ hulls and fishing gear, hitching a ride in boats’ ballast water or when exotic pets (like red-eared sliders) are abandoned into the wild. More recently, some species have taken to a more creative way to get around: clinging onto plastic and other marine debris that pollutes the oceans.

Retrieval of zebra mussel-encrusted Vector Averaging Current Meter near Michigan City, IN. Lake Michigan, June 1999. Credit: NOAA/United States Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL)
Retrieval of zebra mussel-encrusted Vector Averaging Current Meter near Michigan City, IN. Lake Michigan, June 1999. Credit: NOAA/United States Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL)

Invasive species can cause a lot of ecological damage, especially in aquatic environments. Take the green crab, native to the Northeastern Atlantic coasts of Europe and North Africa, which first arrived in North America in the early 1800s and today can be found on every continent except Antarctica.

Green crabs—which, despite their name, vary in color from green to yellow to orange—are about the size of a human hand. Aggressive, quick and ravenous for bivalves and small crustaceans, green crabs compete for food sources and habitat with native species of fish, crustaceans and birds. They’ve also been blamed for economic losses to the world’s soft-shell clam fisheries, including those in Maine.

Roman notes that other notorious invaders include the North Pacific sea star, which made its way to Australia where it consumes native shellfish; caulerpa, a marine algae that overtakes native grasses and relatively stationary invertebrates; the Chinese mitten crab, which can kill off native invertebrates; and the American comb jelly, “a voracious predator of fish eggs and zooplankton” that’s caused a lot of damage in the Black Sea in Southeastern Europe.

And what did I end up eating at Miya’s? Well, I started out with Chef Bun Lai’s Pumpkin Miso Soup made with “locally foraged, invasive” seaweed and for my main course went with “Romping With the Goats,” whole wheat Asian carp tempura with papaya and goat cheese. Everything was quite delicious, and I didn’t get a stomachache.

Chef Bun Lai of Miya's Sushi. Credit: M. Lai (Wikimedia Commons)
Chef Bun Lai of Miya’s Sushi. Credit: M. Lai

Eating at restaurants like Miya’s Sushi and foraging for invasive species to eat is fun and can help reduce invasive species’ populations. But Roman emphasizes that doing so should only be taken as a complementary approach when tackling the issue of invasive species.

“It’s important to note that the best way to stop invasives is to prevent their spread, through strong policies that restrict the movement of nonnative species,” says Roman. “The message at the core of Eat the Invaders is to stop the spread of new invaders and control those that are already here.”

As part of the National Aquarium’s 48 Days of Blue campaign, which spans the 48 days between Earth Day and World Oceans Day on June 8, you can find daily challenges to benefit the seas on the aquarium’s website and we’ll be incorporating one challenge per week into our blog posts.
One challenge this week: Embrace Invasives! Test out an invasive species recipe or eat a meal at a restaurant that includes nonnative animals, plants or insects. Be adventurous!

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.