The bold idea to eat them out of existence occurred to conservation biologist Joe Roman 20 years ago, when he developed the concept of invasivorism. Back then, it was considered more a topic for quirky cocktail conversation than a serious scientific discussion. Over time, however, Roman, based at the University of Vermont, has watched the stars align, with research and chefs like Paine advancing the practice, and individuals in general taking an interest in the ecological consequences of their gustatory habits.
The modern notion of invasivorism was born from a tizzy over the European green crab, a palm-size crustacean so successful at stuffing mussels, clams, and scallops into its tooth-lined stomach that it cost American fisheries nearly a billion dollars in lost revenue between 1975 and 2000.
The year 2000 also marked when Roman set out to decipher how, precisely, the crab had made the leap from European waters to North America’s Eastern Seaboard. He soon found himself elbow deep in a chilly Nova Scotia tidal pool, pulling dozens of slimy, pinching scuttlers out of the salt water for DNA analysis. “It was a great gig,” he recounts.
No matter his audience, Roman always came back to the argument that invasivorism could turn unwanted mountains of exotics into manageable molehills. He likens it to biologists killing off caterpillar populations in an area by releasing hordes of predatory wasps. “It’s a form of biological control,” he says. “It’s just using us instead of an insect.”
But he acknowledges that not all scientists agree with him. Daniel Simberloff, a conservation biologist with the University of Tennessee, blasted invasivorism for its potential to unintentionally perpetuate the presence of the very species it is meant to eradicate.
From the start, Roman touted invasivorism by coupling his message with how-tos. He wanted people to see nutria as not just a swamp rodent but also a potential egg roll ingredient. It remained a hard sell.
And so, as the years passed, he began collaborating with professional cooks, who proved far better at dressing up invasives as culinary delights. “I’m a biologist,” Roman points out. “If I tell you crabs are delicious, you’re unlikely to listen to me. But if you go to a restaurant and Chef Bun serves you this, that’s probably the best way to convince you.”