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Invasive Species on the Menu

By: Jessie Quinn, Ph.D.

Puerto Rico has been overrun with green iguanas (Iguana iguana) since a handful of pets were released in the 1970s.  With few predators and a rapid reproductive rate, the population of these critters quickly exploded up to an estimated 4 million individuals (that’s more iguanas than people in Puerto Rico, by the way).  The reptiles are increasingly jockeying for space amongst the dense human population on the island; burrowing and nesting under buildings and electric plants and causing general structural damage and power outages.  Iguanas are also quite fond of lounging in the sun on roads and airport landing strips, much to the dismay of car travelers and the Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport in San Juan.  According the secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, they also damage crops and native ecosystems.  And Puerto Rico has just about had it.

Recently, Puerto Rico’s Department of Health approved the development of a broad-scale effort to capture, kill, and export the iguanas for processing and distribution in the U.S.  For food, that is.  Apparently, iguana meat is in high demand for some cultures’ cuisine, fetching up to $6/lb.  The Department of Natural Resources intend to produce a plan to train volunteers to capture the animals in May, and hope that in addition to clearing the island of an invasive pest, the cull and export of the large lizards will generate enough revenue to strengthen the Puerto Rican economy.

Turning invasive species into a tasty main dish is a novel approach in Puerto Rico, an island that deals with numerous introduced and invasive species.  Mongooses (Herpestes javanicus), and black rats (Rattus rattus) populations are also teeming across the Commonwealth; however, mongooses are unpalatable as they are the primary carriers of rabies in Puerto Rico, and rats…well, who wants to eat a rat?  Not to mention the feral cats and dogs, the consumption of which might kick up a little bit of contention. This idea stretches beyond Puerto Rico; in Maryland, chefs are looking to put another invasive species, snakeheads (Channa argus), on menus.

Although the plan may appear to fall into the “So-Crazy-it-Just-Might-Work” category, one can’t help but wonder if creating a market for invasive species will reduce the incentive to eradicate them.  Hmmm… the outcome of this approach should be interesting to watch.

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