As a longtime pescetarian and proponent of healthy eating, I’m delighted when people mention adding seafood to their diet. My heart sinks, though, when I hear that these additions consist of imported shrimp and tuna or farmed Atlantic salmon.
Although I appreciate any attempt to eat more wholesomely, I wish Americans would make wiser, more environmentally sound choices when it comes to shellfish and fish.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 91% of our favorite seafood was shipped in from overseas in 2011. Meanwhile, our own waters teem with nutritious yet highly invasive species such as Asian carp, northern snakehead and lionfish. In an age of increasing concerns about the environment and sustainability, our dependence on imported and ecologically unsound seafood makes no sense. It’s time for us to stop making unviable choices and start eating America’s glut of destructive, nonnative fish.
Eating invasive fish aids sustainability
Think that the need for invasivores — people who eat invasive species — might be overhyped? Consider Asian carp, specifically bighead, silver, black, and grass carp. They were introduced in the late 1960s to control parasites, algae and weeds in Southeastern U.S. aquaculture.
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This story is not unique. Dumped out of exotic aquariums, the flamboyant and venomous Indo-Pacific lionfish has infiltrated the coastal waters of Florida, spreading as far north as North Carolina and as far south as the Caribbean. Left unchecked, the lionfish has destroyed entire reef populations and drastically reduced biodiversity.
Native to Africa and Asia, northern snakeheads have likewise decimated wildlife in the Potomac, sections of the East and West coasts, Florida and Hawaii. Able to live several days out of the water, they wriggle over land to ravage nearby ponds, reservoirs and lakes. As a result, snakeheads are particularly troublesome.
Although America spends millions of tax dollars attempting to contain or eliminate these and other invasive fish, they remain prized foods in their native lands. In China and Southeast Asia, cooks grill, fry, poach, braise, steam or stew snakehead.
In Cambodia, this freshwater fish serves as an essential source of protein and stars in the traditional curry dish amok trey. Firm, white-fleshed and moderate in flavor, it makes a fitting substitute for overfished darlings such as monkfish and snapper.
Low in mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), Asian carp also abounds with culinary possibilities. Along with smoking, steaming, grilling and frying, it performs well in soups, curries and stews. Mild and white-fleshed, it’s a good stand-in for the depleted Atlantic cod and Icelandic pollock.
Lionfish, too, is a pleasant-tasting replacement for environmentally unsafe fish. In July 2010, the Washington Post prophesized that lionfish could be “the new sustainable ‘it’ seafood.”
Mild in flavor and white-fleshed, it offers a versatile alternative to popular but eco-unfriendly choices such as grouper and orange roughy. It responds well to most cooking techniques and pairs well with a number of ingredients.
Although lionfish does possess venomous dorsal spines, its meat is safe to eat. I say this from experience. This past winter in the Florida Keys, I had several lovely, light lunches of speared, filleted and then pan-seared lionfish topped with a spritz of lime juice or dollop of mango chutney. Obviously, I lived to write about it.
Our aquatic enemies may be tasty and a snap to cook, but not everyone will want to devour a fish called “snakehead” or “bighead carp.” This is where smart marketing comes into play. Most people would avoid the unattractively named Patagonian toothfish. However, tucking into an exotic Chilean sea bass has proved to be A-OK with diners. Same fish, different designation. Provide snakehead and Asia carp with fancy or friendlier names, and watch how opinions change.
Exposure will likewise aid in gaining converts. Invasive species-themed dinners have already taken place in Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Baltimore. Along with raising public awareness of these marauding creatures, the events aim to tantalize the public’s palate. Chefs create tempting specialties such as snakehead po’ boys, European green crab stew, lionfish sashimi and Asian carp croquettes. Bite into a moist and flavorful snakehead taco, and you’ll never fill your tortillas with shrimp or tuna again.
With a bit of consumer education, exposure and smart marketing, we could control — if not eliminate — America’s invasive seafood species problem. In the process, we would reduce our dependence on unsustainable, imported seafood. It’s time for us to take note of the invasive species’ culinary appeal and start catching and consuming our nemeses.
Main photo: Lionfish. Credit: iStockphoto / kiankhoon