Invasive species come in many forms. Cane toads cause havoc in Australia. Water hyacinth chokes our rivers. Ship rats run rampant worldwide. They represent one of the greatest threats to native biodiversity across the globe. And our seas are not immune from their devastating impact.
Climate change is warming the waters of the eastern Mediterranean, turning it into a tropical sea. As a result, non-native species including lionfish, rabbitfish, squirrelfish and, yes, even lizardfish are flooding in from the Indo-Pacific through the Suez Canal. In the absence of any natural predators, these unwelcome invaders are in danger of multiplying rapidly. They pose a serious threat to Türkiye’s marine ecosystem, preying on native species, overgrazing vegetation and dramatically altering underwater habitats.
Invasive rabbitfish have devastated algal forests in the Mediterranean with their grazing habits. Credit: Zafer Kizilkaya
Already the world’s most overfished sea, the Mediterranean – and the small-scale local fishers whose livelihoods depend on it – cannot withstand this additional pressure. Urgent action is needed. As part of a multifaceted marine restoration programme, Fauna & Flora’s in-country partner, Akdeniz Koruma Derneği (AKD), has come up with an imaginative solution to the problem: if you can’t beat them, eat them.
Recipe for success
Invasivorism’ is a bit of a mouthful in every sense. This recently coined term refers to the practice of putting non-native species on the menu. Until recently, small-scale fishers who caught lionfish and other invasives would regard them as unwanted bycatch and simply discard them. One exception is rabbitfish, an invasive species that has been present in Turkish waters long enough for a domestic market to emerge. Lionfish, on the other hand, had no commercial value, and were therefore simply discarded. In 2020, AKD founded its own enterprise to help promote the sale and consumption of edible invasives, branded as ‘new fish’.
With the support of Fauna & Flora, AKD has been tireless in its outreach efforts to generate demand for lionfish, focusing on collaborating with influential chefs and restaurants to raise the profile of edible invasive species, as well as attending and running food festivals and tasting events across Türkiye’s Turquoise Coast, and in major urban centres including Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.
AKD’s engagement activities have included student competitions and promoting invasive fish consumption on the Turkish version of MasterChef. Credit: AKD
Funda Kök, AKD’s Conservation Manager, has played a pivotal role in the campaign, building relationships with the relevant sections of the community, from fishers to celebrity chefs and restauraters: “In its first year alone, AKD’s new venture worked directly with fishers from 22 cooperatives, purchased five tonnes of edible invasive species from small-scale fishers and sold more than 2.5 tonnes, supporting income generation for well over 500 beneficiaries, including fishers and dependents.”
Last year AKD collaborated with Gurmefest, a three-day gourmet food festival based in Izmir that welcomed 25,000 attendees. The team hosted a food stall offering invasive species tasters and workshops which was visited by 7,500 people.
AKD at the 2022 Gurmefest food festival. Credit: AKD
To date, AKD has collaborated regularly with over 60 restaurants including Istanbul’s Efendy restaurant, whose owner, chef Somer Sivrioğlu is also a panel judge on MasterChef Türkiye. Sivrioğlu is a great supporter of AKD’s work and mission and in a recent episode of the hit show took the opportunity to promote the importance of edible invasive species consumption to help restore marine ecosystems on national television, helping to spread the message to a much wider audience.
AKD has also been targeting early-career chefs and collaborating with culinary schools in Ankara and Istanbul. The Gastronomy and Culinary Arts Department at Başkent University in Ankara, with the support of AKD, introduced edible invasive species into their Advanced Seafood Production course by organising a workshop with 25 trainee chefs to demonstrate the versatility and creativity of using lionfish in four new recipes.
AKD hopes its efforts will lead to wider consumption of lionfish and other invasive species in Türkiye. Credit: Michelangelo Pignani/Fauna & Flora