Prometheus in a Pond

Written by Dennis Behreandt on Tuesday, 12 June 2012. Posted in Biology, Sci/Tech

Invasive species represent a threat to the environment that sometimes seems like something out of a science fiction nightmare. But with the threat also comes opportunity and a potentially economical and useful new food source.

Prometheus in a Pond

In Ridley Scott’s sci-fi 3D extravaganza Prometheus, the crew of an interstellar science expedition looking for mankind’s creator finds instead a nightmare of slithery, predatory and implacable alien enemies eager to hunt down and consume mammals, especially primates, that are up to two-thirds their size.

One needn’t visit the local movie theater, however, to find such horrible aliens. Increasingly, looking in the local pond is all it takes.

That was the case in British Columbia where officials were appalled to find that a large, slimy predator was lurking in a pond in the city of Burnaby.

The beast in question is the so-called “frankenfish,” more correctly known as a snakehead, a predatory fish with an elongated body and a prodigious appetite. 

According to Canada’s National Post, someone caught the fish on video terrorizing the pond and officials “had to lower the water level of the lagoon ... in order to nab” the interloper....”

Like the fictional aliens in Prometheus, this alien species of “torpedo-shaped fish with a toothy jaw ... can snap up mammals two-thirds its size,” the paper reports.

Snakeheads are just one of several invasive species now raising concerns in North American waters. They, along with Asian carp in the Mississippi River watershed, and zebra and quagga mussels in the Great Lakes, threaten to disrupt local ecosystems and damage stocks of native gamefish.

In British Columbia, according to the National Post, snakeheads “could pose a severe risk to B.C.’s wild salmon stocks if they reached the nearby Fraser River, the National Post reported.

It is thought that some snakeheads have made their way into North American waterways via home aquarium enthusiasts. An interesting fish to watch in a tank, the fish can get too large, leading some hobbyists to release the fish into the wild.

This is allegedly how a large snakehead made its way into one Wisconsin river.

According to the state’s Department of Natural Resources, “In early September 2003, a DNR crew collected another species of an exotic snakehead fish, the giant snakehead, during routine sampling of the Rock River. The fish was more than likely released into the river after outgrowing its home aquarium space.” 

Other snakehead populations may originate with the importation of the fish for food. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, “The likely source of northern snakeheads that have been found in U.S. waters is live food fish markets.” 

It is not terribly surprising that more and more invasive species are impacting North America. As immigration patterns change and expand, as people move around the globe, they bring the animals they are accustomed to in their homelands with them. Consider the case of the chicken.

More people eat more chicken than just about any other type of meat. How did this otherwise unremarkable bird become the default culinary choice for people the world over?

As Jerry Adler and Andrew Lawler point out for Smithsonian Magazine, chickens served as symbols and as inspiration and traveled with people and armies.

“The prodigious and ever-watchful hen was a worldwide symbol of nurturance and fertility,” Adler and Lawler write. “Eggs hung in Egyptian temples to ensure a bountiful river flood. The lusty rooster (a.k.a. cock) was a universal signifier of virility—but also, in the ancient Persian faith of Zoroastrianism, a benign spirit that crowed at dawn to herald a turning point in the cosmic struggle between darkness and light. For the Romans, the chicken’s killer app was fortunetelling, especially during wartime. Chickens accompanied Roman armies, and their behavior was carefully observed before battle; a good appetite meant victory was likely. According to the writings of Cicero, when one contingent of birds refused to eat before a sea battle in 249 B.C., an angry consul threw them overboard. History records that he was defeated.” 

Long before the finicky bird angered a Roman consul, the tasty bird had spread far from its native range. The Smithsonian’s writers point out that bird’s wild ancestor is to be found in Southeast Asia and it spread from there, first, it seems, to northeast China. It eventually found its way to Africa and went on to circle the globe, not by flying (chickens have never been that good at flight), but by going along for the ride with people.

“Once chickens were domesticated, cultural contacts, trade, migration and territorial conquest resulted in their introduction, and reintroduction, to different regions around the world over several thousand years,” Adler and Lawler noted.

And so it is with Asian carp and snakeheads. Both species are common food items in their native ranges. Chef Philippe Parola, who according to his profile published on his website studied culinary arts in France, has published a number of recipes [PDF] for Asian carp, which he calls “silverfin.” His “Silverfin Provencale” calls for Asian carp steaks with olive oil, white wine, lemon juice and garlic and is served over pasta, rice or mashed potatoes. 

As for snakeheads, they are delicacies in Thai and Chinese recipes. And getting Americans to eat these invasive species may be the best way to control them.

When asked by NPR if Americans should consume invasive species as a solution to the problem, Andrew Zimmern, famous for his fearless forays into food on his Travel Channel show “Bizarre Foods,” simply quipped, we “should eat invasive species away.” 

Can it work? If there is demand for a resource, there will be incentive for those who can produce a supply. And that is exactly what is happening in Illinois with Asian carp.

Big River Fish Corp was founded in Pearl, Illinois in 1999 and now supplies millions of pounds of Asian carp to markets around the world. With 90 commercial fishermen supplying the fish, the company has become the largest purchaser of Asian carp in America. 

In 2011, according to the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, Big River was paying 15 cents per pound for the fish, up from 8 cents per pound earlier. If the fish catches on elsewhere, other commercial fishermen will be attracted to the opportunity. Potentially, market economics will bring the “invasion” under control.

With continuing success, invasive species like Asian carp and perhaps even snakehead can then become the new “chicken” of the sea for the 21st century, rather than remain, as they are, a threat to the environment, if not something out of a Ridley Scott nightmare.

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About the Author

Dennis Behreandt

Dennis Behreandt

Dennis Behreandt is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of American Daily Herald.

Copyright © American Daily Herald.

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