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Florida diners gobble pesky invasive species

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'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Fort Myers (Fla.) News Press
Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

FORT MYERS, Fla. — They're destroying our reefs, uprooting native plants, strangling our birds, choking our waterways and sucking the stucco right off our homes.

Florida's invasive species — lionfish, feral hogs, Burmese pythons, water hyacinth, giant African land snails — have caused a slew of troubles.

One possible solution seems simple enough: Let's eat 'em!

In Fort Myers, you can find python fillets on pizza and wild boar on spaghetti. In Miami, they're frying whole lionfish and serving it with mango salsa.

It's only a matter of time before our hunger for the exotic gets the best of these exotics — right?

“It's not quite that easy.”

That naysayer is Paul Skelley, a collection manager and entomologist with the Florida Department of Agriculture.

“Could we eat them to extinction? It's unlikely,” Skelley said. “The problem is humans. Once we decide we like the taste of something, we want to keep it.”

Another problem is agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture. Their inspectors frown on the unregulated sale of wild game and foraged plants to the public. There are safety and quality standards to be met, and processors who must be held accountable.

Very few of the exotic proteins seen on menus are harvested locally.

“It's a liability issue I don't want to have,” said Sal Basile, owner of Two Meatballs in the Kitchen in Fort Myers, which serves a wild boar ragu as an occasional special. “When it has worms in it, then what happens? It doesn't pay for me to take that chance.”

Basile orders his wild boar from Cheney Brothers, a Florida-based food distributor. Cheney Brothers gets it from Texas, where the animals roam on ranches.

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