Maryland chefs want to put snakeheads on the menu

In the fight against invasive species, 'if you can't beat 'em, eat 'em,' they say

July 19, 2011|By Laura Vozzella, The Baltimore Sun

Chef Chad Wells of Alewife restaurant tossed chunks of raw snakehead fish with cilantro and citrus to make something more ambitious than an $8 ceviche appetizer. It was an invasive-species eradication plan in a martini glass.

Wells wants the Asian interloper, which has settled with alarming ease into Chesapeake-area rivers, streams and perhaps the bay itself, to find a new home on restaurant menus. The chef is confident that once diners get a taste of snakehead, they can be counted on to do what they've always done with toothsome fish: wipe them out.

"We've proved time and again, the best way to destroy something is get humans involved," Wells said.

Right now, the people most bent on reeling in snakeheads are chefs, who think serving invasive species could represent an important new twist on the sustainable seafood movement. Some of the biggest names in regional restaurants — "Top Chef" rivals Bryan Voltaggio and Mike Isabella, Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen, Scott Drewno of Washington's The Source by Wolfgang Puck — are trying to get their hands on the fish so they can slice, dice and pan sear the thing into oblivion.

"We've been doing the complete opposite and focusing on conserving species," said Voltaggio, owner of Volt restaurant in Frederick. "Here's a fish you can feel good about depleting."

Chef Barton Seaver, formerly of the sustainable seafood restaurant Hook in Georgetown, served snakefish in June as part of an invasive species sushi bar at the National Geographic Society gala.

"Eating invasive species is a really fun and interesting and charismatic way of attacking a very acute problem, said Seaver, who advocates for sustainable seafood as a National Geographic Fellow.

It helps that snakehead, which he served lightly smoked, over rice, with a little dab of sweet soy sauce, is quite tasty.

"It had the same dense, meaty and yet flaky texture of eel with a real sweet aftertaste to it," he said. "It's a good fish. It should be. It spends all day eating bass and other tasty fish."

Chefs are in a unique position to influence what people eat and, by extension, what species thrive and survive, he said.

"The guiding hand of natural selection has really become that of the cook," Seaver said. "It's no longer a deified hand or a long, slow evolutionary process."

Snakeheads are one species that environmentalist would like to see overfished since they are rapidly reproducing and threatening native fish populations. A similar movement is under way for lionfish and Asian carp in parts of the country where those fish are causing problems.

"Can't beat 'em, eat 'em," is the slogan from Louisiana chef Philippe Parola, who cooked Asian carp for attendees of the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force meeting in Arkansas last spring.

When it comes to land-based invasives, Parola campaigned for five years to promote nutria as a protein source. He said red tape with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not Americans' aversion to eating rodent, doomed that project. But he's optimistic about snakehead.

"I think the problem can be resolved by having more anglers fishing for it," he said.

Some experts question how much of a dent a commercial fishery can make in snakehead numbers. They also worry that the plan could backfire by creating a fan base for the fish.

"If people get a taste for this new fish and they're just wild about it, what happens when they're eradicated?" asked Kate McLaughlin, seafood program director for the Blue Ocean Institute in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. "Will people reintroduce them in order to try and have a market for this fish, or will they simply walk away — 'That was a good fish, I enjoyed eating it'? There's just an element of the unknown here. We're not sure how the market will respond."

Seaver agrees that's a risk.

"Once you create a viable human economic interest in a species, then there's incentive to keep it around," he said.

Native to Asia, snakeheads are thought to have arrived in area waters after being dumped by people who kept them as pets or by Chinese restaurants, which sometimes serve them. Since snakeheads were first discovered in a Crofton pond in 2002, their numbers have grown exponentially.

"In 2004, we had 20 caught," said Steve Minkkinen, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. "Now hundreds and hundreds are getting caught every year. … They're in every tributary of the Potomac from Great Falls to the mouth of the river."

Long thought to live only in fresh water, snakeheads may have made their way into the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay because heavy spring rains caused salinity levels to drop to record lows, Minkkinen said. A 23-inch snakehead caught last week in a river south of Annapolis has underscored the concern that the fish are escaping from the Potomac.

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