Invasive species are animals and plants that have been introduced, whether accidentally or on purpose, into their current habitat and at the expense of the native species that were already there. With few predators, diseases and other natural controls to keep them in check, invasive species establish themselves in their new environment and encroach on the food or habitat of native species.
While invasive species are not native, that doesn't mean that all non-native species are invasive. In order for a species to be classified as invasive, it must present a potential or a clear threat to its new environment. Some species introduced into the Chesapeake Bay, such as walleye, have formed a healthy relationship to their new environment without threatening the Bay’s native species, and are therefore not considered invasive.
The Chesapeake Bay is home to its own share of invasive species, which disrupt the Bay’s delicate ecosystem and threaten native life. Because these invaders have few natural predators, one of the best things we can do to help control their population is to eat them ourselves.
Here are seven recipes using invasive recipes that you can try out in your kitchen.
Cornmeal crusted blue catfish
Blue catfish are native to the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio river basins, and were stocked in Virginia waterways to help promote the state’s fishing industry in the 1970s. However, the catfish’s large appetite and indiscriminate diet meant that it was able to easily outcompete native species for food. With a rapid reproduction rate and almost no natural predators, blue catfish have become one of the Bay’s most threatening invasive fish.
The best thing we can do to help fight back against blue catfish is to eat them. One creative recipe uses a dash of Old Bay seasoning to help form a sizzling cornmeal crust. You can create some added flavor by sprinkling in some chanterelle mushrooms, pickled tomatoes or a splash of aioli sauce.
Originally native to China, Russia and Korea, the northern snakehead was likely imported into the United States to create new market opportunities for local fishermen. Since it was discovered in Bay watershed in 2002, the exotic fish has spread rapidly into bodies of freshwater throughout the region—sometimes even traveling by land to do so. While the long-term impact of snakeheads is unclear, experts warn that these aggressive eaters could eventually outcompete others species of fish for food.
The good news is that snakeheads are not only edible, but taste great. Once skinned, snakeheads are incredibly easy to cook and create endless cooking possibilities. One recipe for pan-seared snakehead calls for a simple combination of canola oil, salt and freshly ground pepper. After a few minutes spent simmering over the stove and cooking in the oven, your snakehead will be ready to eat.
Grilled lemon pepper and garlic flathead catfish
Flathead catfish are native to the rivers and lakes that make up the lower Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins. Cousins of the blue catfish, flathead catfish were introduced to the James River as a recreational catch in the late 1960s. Their rapid expansion throughout the Bay watershed has raised concern about their potential impact on menhaden, blue crabs and other native species that play an important role in our ecosystem and economy.
While there are countless ways to cook this tasty fish, a recipe for grilled lemon pepper and garlic flathead is particularly flavor-packed. Flathead catfish are easy to prepare, as they can be cooked with or without skin.
A note for cooking fish: Toxic contaminants are a concern in the Chesapeake region, and they can concentrate in the fish’s skin. Therefore, if you’re cooking fish, it’s best to use a recipe that removes the skin, and make sure to follow fish consumption advisories if you’re catching them yourself.
Smoked pulled nutria
Nutria are large, semi-aquatic rodents found in the marshes and wetlands of the Delmarva peninsula. They were introduced from South America during the 20th century to help establish a fur trade in the United States. Since then, nutria have devastated the wetland habitats of the Chesapeake Bay. As nutria uproot and consume massive amounts of sediment-holding plants, wetlands become increasingly susceptible to erosion.
While nutria numbers have dwindled in recent years, trappers should stay on the lookout for these pests. An award-winning smoked pulled nutria recipe shows how nutria can be transformed into a tender, flavorful dish using salt, brown sugar and a homemade barbecue sauce.
Sweet-and-sour Chinese mitten crab
The Chinese mitten crab is an invasive species named for its hairy, white-tipped claws. The crab aggressively competes with native species for resources and threatens them through predation. In addition to its negative ecological impact, the invasive crab has created problems for the Bay’s fishing industry by eating away at fishing nets and infesting fish passages. They also cause infrastructural damage, interfering with power plants and water treatment facilities.
Chinese mitten crabs are a popular food source in Asia, where they are traditionally steamed. Though smaller than the blue crab, the Chinese mitten crab offers a sweeter, more intense flavor than their native counterpart, and pairs well with a homemade sweet-and-sour dipping sauce.
Spicy garlic mustard cocktail
Animals are not the Chesapeake Bay’s only invaders. Garlic mustard is an invasive plant from Europe that has established populations throughout the Bay watershed. Garlic mustard coats undergrowth and directly competes with native plants for light, water, space and nutrients. It also releases harmful chemicals into the ground, which prevent neighboring plants from taking in water and important nutrients from the soil.
A popular culinary herb in Asia, garlic mustard presents a world of possibilities in the kitchen. Garlic mustard has shallow root systems and are relatively easy to pull from the ground and, once harvested, their seeds can spice up a salad, some pesto or even your cocktail.
Sometimes called common reed or reed grass, phragmites are tall, stiff plants that typically grow in dense clusters. They were introduced to the United States in the 19th century when ships from Europe and Asia inadvertently carried phragmites seeds in their ballast. These densely packed reeds tower over their surroundings, blocking sunlight and crowding out native plants.
While phragmites are not a substantial source of food for marsh waterfowl, they can make for a surprisingly flavorful snack when prepared correctly. After boiling and straining your phragmites shoots, a simple combination of salt, pepper and butter can transform these wetland weeds into a tasty treat.
What’s your favorite invasive species recipe? Let us know in the comments!