Pest may be next Cajun sensation Nutria: Louisiana officials hope to entice residents to include in their cuisine the voracious, fast-breeding rodent that's destroying the state's wetlands.

Sun Journal

September 12, 1998|By Julie Cart | Julie Cart,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW ORLEANS -- Louisiana has always had a high tolerance for scoundrels, but this latest dirty rat is laying waste to the southern half of the state, and his self-serving agenda is changing the shape of the border.

This new marauder is, in fact, a member of the rodent family. He's a nutria: a nearsighted, ratlike South American import that for 50 unimpeded years has been reproducing wildly and flourishing in the Louisiana wetlands, all the while eating all the vegetation he could get past his pronounced overbite.

Nutria are destroying the coastal wetlands that are crucial to Louisiana's water-control efforts, vital to the fishing and trapping industries and home to scores of protected species. Environmental and wildlife experts have for decades been stumped at how to rid the swamps and bayous of this damaging creature, whose rampant feeding threatens to destroy an all-important buffer zone for hurricanes sweeping in from the Gulf of Mexico.

Now the state is striking back. Officials with the Wildlife and Fisheries Department have launched a five-year program aimed at downsizing the nutria population and reclaiming denuded wetlands by tapping into what people in Louisiana do exceedingly well: eat.

Officials have recruited the state's top chefs to create dishes to entice citizens to devour nutria. They have an abiding faith that they can saute, braise and fricassee their way out of this crisis.

"Other approaches haven't worked," explains Noel Kinler, project manager of the state's nutria project.

So far, it's a tough sell. People here may be famous for their adventurous eating habits, but they appear to have drawn the nutritional line at nutria. Call it what you want, it still looks like a rat.

The environmental problem grew out of the ruthlessness of the nutria's eating habits, which treats the Mississippi Delta as its personal salad bar. It feeds by paddling around a heavily vegetated marsh and seeks out the tender roots of aquatic plants, chewing its way up to the leaves, which it ignores. Biologists call the damaged sections "eat outs."

"The rule of thumb is they eat only 10 percent of what they destroy," says zoologist Bob Thomas, a professor at Loyola University here. "Ninety percent of the plant floats away."

Replanting has been tried on a limited basis, with little success. Nutria follow behind, gorging on the tender shoots of the new plants. Even when they aren't eating, nutria burrow into levees, causing them to collapse.

They are strong swimmers. Adults grow to about the size of a small beaver, propelling themselves with webbed back feet and steering with their rope-like tail. Their vegetarian diet provides little fuel, so nutrias must eat constantly.

When they aren't eating, they have one other major interest. Nutria's mating habits make rabbits seem standoffish. They begin breeding at 6 months and have three litters a year, with up to 13 offspring in each litter.

At one point, officials estimated there were 20 million nutria in Louisiana, but the current population may be half of that. The creatures have popped up elsewhere in the country, including Maryland's Eastern Shore, but nowhere else on this scale. One natural population control is the alligator, which is happy to include nutria in its diet but is dormant four months a year.

Louisiana officials began the new nutria-control program as a response to the damage to what they conservatively estimate is 80,000 acres of coastal wetlands. Forty percent of the nation's coastal wetlands lie within Louisiana, where 80 percent of the total national wetland loss occurs.

If the population is not controlled, tens of thousands of acres of wetlands are in serious jeopardy, Kinler says.

And not just along the coast. Like everyone else in Louisiana, nutria eventually gravitated to New Orleans to eat. No one in the cities much cared about the furry fiend when it was devouring far-flung swamps, but when it began to scuttle along drainage canals in New Orleans and urban Jefferson Parish, residents shrieked.

Officials would like nutria to join blackened redfish and alligator meat as part of Louisiana's must-have cuisine. They are spending $2 million to develop a market for a meat that has been tested as very lean, low in cholesterol and rich in protein.

They dream of a time in the not-so-distant future, when, all over the world, it will be common to hear: "Nutria. Very good. How about a nice chardonnay to go with it?"

The key to the program is to add incentive for nutria to be harvested. The state will subsidize the hunting and processing of nutria meat. The only licensed nutria processor in the state, Tommy Stoddard of Hackberry, says the animal is difficult to dress and takes a trained person five min- utes to clean. He has processed about 5,000 pounds of nutria meat this year.

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