Invasive Species: Biting Back

The world’s aquatic ecosystems are suffering from overfishing.  Simply put, overfishing occurs when fish are caught faster than they can reproduce and replenish their populations.  While total global catch from wild fish stocks has leveled off over the past 10 years, this amount of capture remains at an unsustainable level. Popular species such as the Bluefin tuna, Atlantic cod, and red snapper are currently listed on the overfished list according to a 2018 NOAA Fisheries report[1].  There have been steps taken to reverse the trend.  Production from aquaculture, the practice of raising fish and crustaceans in a controlled environment, now nearly equals production from wild fish populations.  However, intensive aquaculture also has its drawbacks.  It destroys natural habitats and releases excess nutrients, causing harmful algal blooms nearby.  We need to look for alternative ways of producing sustainable seafood.


Invasive Delicacies

Invasive species can be any species not naturally occurring in an area.  These species typically have no natural predators, reproduce effectively, prey on native populations, and alter community food webs.  There are both federal and state programs to curb populations of invasive species, but many times the populations are too large or distribution too wide for these programs to be effective.  If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em. Creating more economically-viable markets through policy incentives takes a bite out of the environmental problem while creating more sustainable seafood.


Case 1 – Lionfish

Take lionfish for example.  High in Omega 3 fatty acids and low in mercury, the invasive delicacy is caught by  both environmentally-conscious residents and commercial divers throughout Florida[2].  Florida has relaxed regulations on spearfishing, such as allowing harvesters of lionfish to spearfish in previously prohibited areas, and a simple $50 license is the only requirement to sell the fish in-state[3].


The price of lionfish in Florida can range from $3-$5 per pound, and Whole Foods even sold fillets in their South Florida stores for a limited time at $6.99/lb.[4] (for comparison, grouper can be up to $18/lb., and snapper from $8-$18/lb., depending on species and location).  The price of lionfish rises as you travel further up the East Coast; $18/lb. in Texas, and up to $35/lb. in New York[5].  The national demand far surpasses the local demand within Florida.  However, out-of-state distributors are not able to source enough lionfish to fill these larger orders.


There are many barriers encountered when selling lionfish out-of-state.  First off, an expensive statewide commercial wholesale license is required, which is not economically viable for an individual diver to purchase.  Secondly, the average catch per diver is small, and established seafood processors do not readily accept such small quantities.  Lastly, if a processor is willing to accept lionfish, many times the distance discourages divers from delivering their small catch.  While it is possible to catch hundreds of pounds of lionfish per day, the majority of divers do not do this.  The gaps in the supply chain restrict lionfish from becoming a nationwide sustainable seafood, and state policies to remove the barriers associated with out-of-state sale will spur greater development of the supply chain.  These could include allowing lionfish to be sold without a wholesale license or incentivizing processors to accept smaller quantities of lionfish.


Case 2 – Asian Carp

The Asian carp is hated by residents of Mississippi River Basin and beyond.  Carp were introduced in the United States to control algae blooms and aquatic vegetation, but quickly spread through floods and accidental releases[6].  Now, their abundant populations out-compete native fish, crustaceans, and mollusks for the same food sources.  Millions of dollars have been spent on federal programs to control the spread.


Similar to lionfish, Asian carp are high in Omega 3 fatty acids and low in mercury.  Although demand from restaurants and domestic markets remains high, there is a stigma against carp, as it is seen as a “trash fish”[7].  Subsequently, much of the harvested Asian carp is used to produce fertilizers and animal feed.  Even so, Fin Gourmet, a fish processor in Kentucky, is shipping over 20,000 pounds of fillets weekly to restaurants in Louisville, Chicago, New Orleans, and Las Vegas[8].  Some chefs are paying up to $10/lb.


In response, some states provide incentives to fishermen.  Kentucky pays an extra 5-cents per pound to fishermen, hoping to incentivize the removal of 20 million pounds over 5 years.  The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) is providing over $500,000 in funding to develop the Asian carp market beyond fertilizer.  The federal government, in combination with the two states, is developing and testing sound barrier technology to prevent carp movement[9]. These policies will take pressure off native stocks of catfish and bass while further developing the Asian carp market.


Going Forward

Sadly, humans excel at exploiting resources.  While dangerous with wild stocks, exploitation is one way to solve the problem of invasive species.  Lionfish and Asian carp are just two examples of healthy invasive species with high market potential.  Future state and federal policies should be directed at developing these markets and incentivizing their catch, rather than spending hundreds of millions of dollars on control technologies and culling programs.  Success in this area will save taxpayers money, take pressure off wild fish stocks, and spur greater harvests of invasive species.



[1]NOAA Fisheries, “Fishery Stock Status Updates”,,

(September 30, 2018)


[2]Andy Lowe, “6 Reasons to Eat Lionfish”,, (March 27, 2017)


[3]Jim Waymer, “Florida Lionfish Ban Takes Effect Aug. 1”,, (June 18, 2014)


[4]Whole Foods Market, “Take a Bite out of Lionfish: Whole Lionfish on Sale”,, (February 2017)


[5]Robin D. Schatz, “Let Them Eat Lionfish: A N.Y. Restauranteur Urges Diners to Prey on an Invasive Species”,, (December 21, 2015)


[6]U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Asian Carp Facts Sheet”,, (2011)


[7]Tony Briscoe, “’Carp Cowboys’ round up invasive Asian carp as Illinois, federal officials debate costly measures to protect Lake Michigan,, (December 6, 2018)


[8]Jere Downs, “Asian Carp Leaps onto Restaurant Tables”,, (September 27, 2016)


[9]Jay Shah, “As Asian Carp Invade Tennessee, The State Asks Fishermen to Help Fight Back”,, (July 30, 2018)


2 thoughts on “Invasive Species: Biting Back

  1. This approach is thoughtful and would provide a unique opportunity to increase our fish stocks and supply through alleviating the pressure of invasive predatory species on native fish stocks and providing the invasive species as supply for the market. I think this approach would be effective depending on the structuring of the policy incentives and the marketing of the “trash fish,” considering that there are many examples of improper labeling of fish species in American markets. However, as you note that humans excel at exploiting resources, I would worry about what comes next if this approach is successful and invasive fish species such as the Lionfish and the Asian Carp are driven out. How would we ensure that native fish stocks recover and are not subsequently overfished once again? There may be similar lessons the American fishing industry can learn from other countries which have attempted to eat invasive species since we can’t beat them with other measures, like the example of the Amazonian paiche ‘invading’ Bolivian waters.

  2. This is a creative and unique way to mitigate two very serious environmental problems with one policy proposal. I was especially surprised to read the extremely high selling price of lion fish in New York, indicating the unmet demand that potential fishermen can capitalize on. I think forwarding this proposal would hinge on educating fishermen on the benefits of fishing specifically for invasive species, as I am sure that many are unaware of the potential economic benefits and high-selling price of these exotic species. Giving fishermen potential incentives to fish invasives would surely help, but it may be unnecessary for species like the lion fish considering the market that already exists. In my opinion, focusing on eliminating the various market barriers that exist for these invasives (most of which seem very unnecessary) should be a priority. Overall, a fascinating read and I look forward to potential policy in the future addressing this opportunity.

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