Let them eat … snails?

A locavore hunter serves up a solution to the growing problem of eradicating invasive species.

I am grateful to be wearing tall rubber boots as I step into the chilly water of the stream just below Totier Creek Reservoir near Scottsville on a cool but sunny late October afternoon. I am “fishing” with Jackson Landers, a leader in the national locavore movement and author of The Beginner’s Guide to Hunting Deer for Food. We are looking for something that should be safely contained in an aquarium rather than in this creek—Chinese mystery snails. “Usually, there are just dozens of them lying on the creek bottom,” says Landers. Today the water is cool, and the snails have retreated under rocks. But, in less than 10 minutes of sliding our hands beneath slabs of shale, we have harvested roughly three dozen of this alien breed but none of the native snail species that were plentiful in this creek just a year ago.

Dumped into rivers and streams by unsuspecting citizens who are tired of keeping the creatures in their home aquariums, Chinese mystery snails quickly multiply and dominate local snail populations. “I can mark off an area of one square foot in the creeks where I’ve found them, and I can pull up maybe half a pound of snails,” says Landers. “They have the potential to completely displace native snail populations.” Landers explains that this alien is bigger and hardier than native snails. Unlike native species, the Chinese mystery snail can enclose itself completely in its shell, thereby protecting it from predators and making it highly tolerant to drought and toxins; when the going gets tough, it simply closes the door and waits it out. Additionally, they give birth to live snails; native snails lay eggs, which are more susceptible to consumption by predators.

It is no mystery that non-native species (like Chinese mystery snails) that out-compete or displace native species can wreak havoc on Virginia’s ecosystems, but in the bigger picture, alien flora and fauna invaders also have the potential to cause serious problems for the economy. Invasives cost taxpayers over $1 billion annually in Virginia alone, says David Pimantel, an ecological economist at Cornell University, and in excess of $120 billion nationally.

According to the Virginia Invasive Species Working Group, an organization created by the Virginia General Assembly to coordinate state agency action regarding invasives, invasive species are defined as non-native plants, animals and pathogens that cause or are likely to cause ecological disruption, economic losses or harm to humans. Some of these invasive species are media superstars—what experts call “charismatic megafauna [or flora].” Says Kevin Heffernan, a natural heritage stewardship biologist at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation: “They are usually ugly, have big teeth or can hurt people in some way.” Examples of these charismatic species include the Northern snakehead fish, a rather long-faced, sharp-toothed fish from China that can grow up to four feet long, and imported fire ants—aggressive ants that arrived from South America in ship ballasts in the 1930s—that deliver a wicked sting. Other species are lesser known to the general public, like the emerald ash borer—a small, bright green, wood-boring beetle from Asia—or Japanese stilt grass, which was used for shipping breakables from Asia and grows well in moist, low-light conditions. Many of these non-native “exotics”—like forest-eating kudzu and charming, but pesky, pigeons—were brought here for decorative purposes. Several began as pets like the mute swan, a beautiful white native of Eurasia, which is highly destructive to native aquatic plants and animals. Others, like the Sirex woodwasp, the African tiger mosquito and the zebra mussel, sneak in via ship ballasts or in imported products like wood or foodstuffs. However they arrive, and regardless of their level of fame, they tend to thrive in their new environment (because they have few predators or are just well suited to the habitat) and threaten native ecosystems, thereby requiring public-private initiatives to manage them.

A good example is phragmites, a picturesque wetland grass (also known as the common reed) that can reach 15 feet in height and features a feathery plume. According to Heffernan, in the 40 years since being introduced to the Back Bay area of Sandbridge, phragmites have taken over as much as 60 percent of the marsh habitat. In terms of natural plant migration, 40 years equals less than a nanosecond in a process which usually takes hundreds of years. Because of the thickness of their root base, phragmites block light from sprouting plants and emit a type of herbicide to ensure its domination. “It totally transforms the habitat,” warns Heffernan. “Without the natural plants, animals such as native birds, fish and crabs can no longer survive in the area.”

 With such a serious toll on Virginia’s economic and ecological health, eradicating nuisance invasives of all kinds should be an easy sell. But experts like Heffernan say it can be difficult to get organizations and individuals on board with eradication. He explains that until an invasive takes over an ecosystem and has a serious negative impact on native plants and animals, many groups balk. “Many invasives were brought here because they are beautiful, like honeysuckle; it’s so fragrant, such a beautiful flower.  It’s vibrant and easy to grow,” he says. “It’s hard to show a picture of them and say, ‘This is an invasive alien species we must destroy!’ when our natural biophilia is to think, ‘It’s pretty.’”

Despite this, several government organizations like the Department of Forestry, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) have taken up arms against alien invasives along with private organizations like the Nature Conservancy and neighborhood groups. To ensure success in the battle, the General Assembly passed legislation in 2003 directing a coordination of efforts. As a result, the Virginia Invasive Species Working Group (VIS) was formed. Its first task: to generate awareness.

The VIS promotes prevention as the most effective strategy against the spread of invasives followed by early detection and quick action. “This is the most cost effective process one can have; move fast and treat it while it is in small numbers, as opposed to waiting until it is widespread. Eradication is then very hard or impossible and very expensive,” says Douglas W. Domenech, chairman of the VIS and Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources. Citizens should report sightings of dangerous and potentially dangerous species (go to VaInvasiveSpecies.org to find out how). From there, VIS can coordinate efforts of federal, state and private organizations “to attack from land, air and sea,” and minimize damage and spreading, according to Heffernan. Working together, he says, concerned groups can be very effective in eliminating invasive populations before they become a huge problem.

One such problem—zebra mussels—may sound harmless, but these prolific, striped shellfish will form colonies as dense as 1 million per square yard and cover boats, docks, pipes, grasses and stationary-shelled water creatures such as clams and other mussels. These pesky mollusks clog intake pipes and litter beaches along the Great Lakes with discarded shells. In 2003, zebra mussels were discovered in a quarry pond in northern Virginia, having arrived on the hull of a pleasure fishing boat. Though they were ultimately contained, it took four years of collaborative work headed by the VDGIF to eradicate them—a success due to early warning and quick action. Sadly, this case appears to be the exception.

As I look at the multitudes of Chinese mystery snail shells washed up on the shore of hydrilla-packed (another invasive) Belmont Bay in Lorton—while on a fishing expedition for Northern snakehead with Landers—I recall Heffernan’s warning; “Funding is inadequate for the size of the problem.” Indeed, the Chinese mystery snail is not yet recognized by officials as a danger, but it clearly is one already. In an effort to face the magnitude of the problem and the limits of public programs, some citizens like Landers have suggested an environmentally safe and economically sound way of dealing with the issue of invasives: Eat them. And a new classification is born: the invasivore.

Neologism aside, invasivores are “those who eat non-native (invasive) species,” according to a January 1, 2011 post of Schott’s Vocab on NYTimes.com. The invasivore movement is alive and well in Virginia and spearheaded (no pun intended) by Landers and Jace Goodling, owner of Afton-based Goat Busters, a service that hires out goats to clear weed or invasive-infested land. Landers and Goodling believe that invasives make good eatin’ for both people and goats. “Basically, it’s food in your backyard and as cruelty free as it gets without massaging the animal to death,” says Landers.

In terms of eating invasives, goats are great at gobbling up a variety of bothersome plants, including some on the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s (DCR) list of highly invasive alien plants. “Multiflora rose, ligustrum [privet], all honeysuckle varieties, kudzu, and autumn olive are goat candy,” says Goodling. Goats are perfect for clearing brush and weeds because they defoliate leaves, which inhibits the process of photosynthesis necessary for the plants’ survival. And they are fast! “Generally speaking, my 40-60 goat mob can clear an acre in two to four days, depending on the type and thickness of flora present,” says Goodling. In regards to efficiency, Goodling muses, “A swarm of locusts or a mob of goats, it’s all the same to a patch of brush after 24 to 48 hours…both provide the same scalding effect.” Although Virginia has yet to instigate a state-sponsored goat brigade to help control pest plants, programs in other states like California have been quite successful. (The natural organic fertilizer they provide is a bonus.)

But goats aren’t the only invasivores. In his second book, Eating Aliens, which will publish later this spring, Landers describes his adventures traveling around the country hunting and eating various alien invasive species. “It’s another way that hunting can be ecologically and socially good in a way that people wouldn’t expect,” Landers explains. On his quest to educate the public on the benefits of eating invasives, Landers has chowed down on such critters as iguana, lionfish, feral pigs and nutria. But research does have its interesting moments. Last summer while Landers was on the Gulf coast of Florida casting for invasive freshwater fish, he caught a nice plecostomus (an aquarium favorite that has become established in parts of Florida due to aquarium dumping). After gutting the fish, Landers rinsed it in the bathroom sink. A moment later, the gutted fish miraculously came back to life, slipping out of his hands and flopping all over the floor. “Bright crimson splatters of blood sprayed the walls, floor and shower curtain in perfect horror movie style. Taken by surprise, I tried to pounce on the flopping fish. I found myself yelling angrily at it, ‘You’re dead! You’re dead! Give up already!’” says Landers.

Back in the stream beneath the Totier Reservoir, Landers expresses his concern for the balance of our state’s ecosystems. Landers fears that without some sort of official control policy in place, Chinese mystery snails will get into the James River causing an environmental catastrophe. They are not yet in the James River (although Totier Creek is only a quarter mile away), but they are in the Potomac and have been since 1960 according to Paul Fofonoff, research biologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland. Oddly enough, this snail has not been formally studied. Fofonoff says, “Catfish and other fish like to eat them and it is hard to know what their effect is on native snails. The danger is unknown at this point.”

Landers suggests that people catch the Chinese mystery snails and eat them until the state can formulate education and/or eradication programs. “There are so many of them and they are so easy to catch. You can scoop them up and in ten minutes have enough for dinner for three,” he tells me as we navigate our way back across the creek. With enough garlic, olive oil, salt and fresh pepper, he might be right. •

I was so intrigued by the thought of tasting Chinese mystery snails  that I contacted restaurateur Brian Helleberg, owner of Fleurie and Petit Pois in Charlottesville, to host a tasting of the pesky mollusk. Helleberg, who is an outstanding chef (and really good sport), loves the idea of eating these snails to eradicate them from local waters, so he collaborated with his staff to create what turned out to be two delectable snail dishes.

After collecting the snails, Helleberg kept them in a bucket of clean water for 10 days with a few leaves of lettuce for them to eat to purge them of dirt and impurities. Once purged, Helleberg removed the trap door (operculum) from the shell, and the snail, shell and all, were flash-boiled in a court bouillon—a stock broth of white wine, celery, carrots, onion, garlic, thyme and bay leaf. They were then removed from the shell and trimmed to the foot (the part used for eating). “These snails look very different from the escargots we normally have imported from France,” notes Helleberg. Indeed. Cooked and trimmed, they resembled rather pasty-looking blobs of old chewing gum, but I had faith in Helleberg’s ability to make them taste fabulous.

Helleberg created a special dish for the occasion: Escargots Fleurie, which is snails en crut with Armanac, tomato, Jerusalem artichoke puree, almonds and celery leaf. Helleberg also brought in Chef Brian Jones of Petit Pois to prepare a tradtional French-style Escargot with garlic and parsley butter. Both dishes were beautiful and delicious. The Chinese mystery snails have a mild flavor and an inherent rubbery quality. (They are snails, after all). But, as Landers points out, “They don’t have to have a good texture; they are pure protein.” The best part? Says Landers, “They taste pretty good.”  

Escargots Confit with Armanac, Tomato and Almond, with a Sunchoke Puree and

Puff Pastry

Chef Brian Helleberg

Fleurie Restaurant, Charlottesville



4 dozen Chinese mystery snails

2 cloves garlic, chopped fine

1 shallot, diced

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup Armanac

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup sliced almonds

1/2 cup vegetable oil

about 1 cup vegetable stock

Rinse snails under cold running water. In a medium pan, melt the butter and sauté the shallot for one minute, stirring so that it doesn’t color. Add the garlic and continue stirring until tender. Add the tomato paste and lightly “toast” in pan to develop flavor. Add the Armanac, almonds, oil and snails, and cover loosely with lid or parchment paper. Bake for 4 hours at 300 degrees. Remove lid periodically and baste with vegetable stock to insure there are no burnt edges. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Jerusalem Artichoke Puree:

1 pound Jerusalem artichokes

1 shallot

1/2 cup dry white wine

2 cups cream

1 sprig thyme

Peel and thinly slice the Jerusalem artichokes. Set aside. Dice the shallots and place them in a 2-quart saucepan. Add the white wine and thyme. Drain the artichokes and transfer to the pan with the shallots, thyme, wine and cream. Cover the pan with a parchment paper lid and simmer until tender (about 1 hour).

Remove the thyme and strain the mixture when cool, reserving the liquid. Puree the solids in a blender until very smooth. Season with salt to taste.

Puff Pastry:

Cut 1-inch diameter rounds of the puff pastry and set in refrigerator to rest for at least one hour. Brush with egg wash and bake at 400 degrees for 12 minutes or until golden brown. Top with escargots.  Garnish with confit tomato and celery leaves.

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