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Invasive Fish: If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Eat ’Em

Lionfish. Credit: iStockphoto / kiankhoon

Lionfish. Credit: iStockphoto / kiankhoon

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.

Unfortunately, these aggressive fish didn’t stay down on the farm. After escaping and crowding out or killing off  native aquatic life, Asian carp now rule over large stretches of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers. Today, they threaten to take over the Great Lakes and other water systems.

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.

Zester Daily contributor Kathy Hunt preparing for a cooking class. Credit: Sean Dippold

Zester Daily contributor Kathy Hunt preparing for a cooking class. Credit: Sean Dippold

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.”

Pan-seared lionfish with rice and beans. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Pan-seared lionfish with rice and beans. Credit: Kathy Hunt

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.

Lionfish. Credit: Frank Wilmer

Lionfish. Credit: Frank Wilmer

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

Zester Daily contributor Kathy Hunt is a food writer, cooking instructor and author of the seafood cookbook "Fish Market." Her writings on food and travel have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and VegNews, among other publications. Currently she is writing the nonfiction book "Herring: A Global History" for Reaktion Books. Kathy can also be found at and on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. 

  • Elizabeth 7·9·14

    We have snakehead fish in a local pond. You should come to Crofton, MD for a visit and go fishing!

  • Phil Karp 7·9·14

    Great post! Promoting consumption of lionfish is indeed a great way to help fight this invasive species. The problem is the high cost of harvesting them (need to use spears or hand nets) as compared to other fish that can be caught using conventional methods. To address this problem, there is a need to find ways to increase the return to fishers. One approach – use of lionfish spines and fins for jewelry and other decorative items. It’s already happening in Belize and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Info here:

  • Sharon 7·9·14

    This is an inspired idea! I love the invasivore appraoch. This is the approach I take with our local deer. Delicious and good for the environment. I am on board.

  • Amy 7·12·14

    I love your writing! I did not know so much about the invasive species. Gotta send the boys fishing and see what they come home with?

  • Christine Venzon 7·15·14

    Here in Peoria we just had the first Flying Fish Festival, complete with fishing derby and cooking demos, aimed at reducing the population of Asian carp in the Illinois River. A lot of people around here have been advocating eating this fish (aka silverfin) for years. Maybe the Festival is a sign that we’ve finally reached the tipping point.

  • Bryan Aldeghi 7·16·14

    Love the article! This isn’t the first time I have heard a similar sentiment. I run into the challenge where I don’t know where to get these offbeat fish. I would love to be a fisherman, and go out and get them myself. However fishing is rather low on the list of priorities right now as we are expecting a baby. Any thoughts on how to get a hold of invasive fish to eat?


  • Kathy Hunt 7·16·14

    Thanks to all for your insightful comments! I do hope that more people start to consume these and other invasive species. It’s a sensible way to combat a serious problem. Bryan, as for where to find these fish, if you have a well-stocked Asian market and/or bustling Chinatown in your community, I would look for snakehead and Asian carp there. Snakehead also goes by its genus “channa” and may be labeled as such. Although I cannot vouch for their quality, you can find frozen lionfish fillets online. Hope that helps!

  • Rialto350 12·13·14

    I hear they are boney fish. So what, at the right price, I’ll de-bone that asian carp myself. Can’t be impossible, and if I tear up a few learning, so what? Once I learn, I’ll know how to de-bone fish, take the heads off, remove the scales and save a fair amount of money over time. Bring on the asian Carp!