Foes or food? Foraging for Great Lakes invasive species

Many invasive species, from garlic mustard to grass carp, were deliberately introduced to the United States because they were once a valuable food source.

A big vat of crayfish and corn on the cob being prepared for eating in a crawfish boil.
Red swamp crayfish, an invasive species in the Great Lakes, are cooked with corn, potatoes, and seasoning in a traditional crawfish boil. Photo: Logan EllzeyUnsplash.

Aquatic invasive species (AIS) are a major problem in the Great Lakes and beyond, with millions of dollars spent annually to control their impacts and spread. Environmental managers use a diversity of tactics to remove aquatic invaders from waterways, from setting bounties for commercial fishers to harvest invasive carp to recruiting teams of divers to scrape zebra and quagga mussels off of underwater pipes. Pesticides, pond drainage, and mechanical removal are all common strategies to tackle AIS – but have you ever considered eating them?

Many invasive species throughout our region, from garlic mustard to grass carp, were deliberately introduced to the United States because they were once a valuable food source for people living in their native ranges. When they escaped (or were deliberately released) from cultivation, they wreaked havoc on their new habitats, often outcompeting native species and throwing the food chain into disarray. Humans putting these species back on the menu is one strategy in the greater toolkit to diminish their impacts on the Great Lakes – and can be a delicious one. We’ve shared a few examples below for your culinary inspiration.

Edible invaders

Invasive carp, particularly bighead, silver, and grass carp, are cherished food fishes within their native ranges in East Asia. Carp often get a bad reputation as a food fish because other species such as Crucian carp are bottom-feeders, resulting in a muddy flavor, but bighead, silver, and grass carp have lean, white meat with a clean, mild flavor. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has launched a campaign called Choose Copi (the new market name for these species), where you can find retailers selling these fish, get recipes, and more. Try wild foods expert Hank Shaw’s recipe for Chinese-style crispy fried carp for a deliciously-spiced high-protein dinner!

Red swamp crayfish (Procambarus clarkii) are a striking and particularly problematic crustacean introduced to the Great Lakes. This species outcompetes many native crayfish due to its size and aggression, and is a host for parasites and diseases that may impact other species. This species was introduced as fishing bait and as food for humans – native to the southeastern US, this is the crayfish species most commonly used in Cajun cooking. Many great recipes for this species exist, from gumbo to bisque to etouffee – here's a Recipe Round-up from Michigan Sea Grant that offers a crash course in crawfish boils and more.

Narrow-leaved cattail (Typha angustifolia) is a notorious wetland plant that forms dense stands along shorelines, crowding out other plant species including the native broad-leaved cattail. However, if collected at their appropriate growth stages, all parts of this plant are edible: the immature flower spikes can be steamed with butter and eaten like sweet corn, the pollen can be harvested for a nutty high-protein add-in to baked goods like bread, and the shoots and rhizomes make a delicious, crunchy vegetable. In addition to its edible uses, some foragers interested in textiles use the long, narrow leaves to make baskets, cordage, and more.

Foraging safely and responsibly

As always, it’s important to know exactly what you’re harvesting before you eat it. MSU Extension has several great identification guides for aquatic (and terrestrial) plants throughout the state of Michigan, and no article on responsible foraging would be complete without mentioning Don’t Pick Poison, a guide to avoiding Michigan’s toxic mushrooms while foraging for wild edibles. Regional foraging groups led by expert botanists, mycologists, fishers, and hunters, such as Will Forage For Food, are wonderful resources and a great way to connect with others who are passionate about protecting Great Lakes ecosystems while getting creative in the kitchen.

Knowing state and local regulations on foraging is an important part of a responsible harvest: check out the state of Michigan’s guide to foraging for wild foods, and remember that there are sometimes restrictions and prohibitions on transporting or possessing live invasive organisms, even if you intend to eat them. Making sure that you don’t accidentally spread invasive species in the process of harvesting them is essential, too: whatever you take should be securely contained and disposed of properly, and you should be certain that you aren’t spreading seeds from your basket, on your clothes, or on the soles of your shoes. Use boot brush stations, clean your gear, and throw away fragments of invasive plants in the garbage rather than in your compost bin, where they can sometimes reestablish. Learn more online about simple actions you can take to stop the spread of invasive species.

Looking for more kitchen inspiration? Visit Freshwater Feasts, Michigan Sea Grant’s cooking blog, which highlights recipes featuring both invasive and native species found across the Great Lakes region. Happy foraging, and bon appetit!

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 34 university-based programs.

This article was prepared by Michigan Sea Grant under award NA22OAR4170084 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce through the Regents of the University of Michigan. The statement, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Commerce, or the Regents of the University of Michigan.

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