|Photo courtesy of Tilapia Film|
When nutria eat all the plants in marshes, they can damage the local ecosystem by taking the food of the birds, frogs and other animals. More alarmingly, "They can also tear up crops and levees, damaging the state’s water infrastructure, and threatening farms," Morehouse and Johnston report. They're prolific too, producing up to 200 offspring a year.
Nutria are native to South America. Fur farmers brought them to southern California in the late 1800s as a more affordable alternative to mink. When nutria fur failed to catch on, farmers let them loose and the rodents went feral. "The nutria problem is potentially so big that the Department of Fish and Wildlife is pulling staff from all over the state for on-the-ground training in finding and eradicating the pest," Morehouse and Johnston report.
Farmers, worried about the damage nutria can do, have been donating sweet potatoes to the scientists to use as bait (nutria love them). Sweet potato farmer Stan Silva said he's never seen a nutria, and never heard of them until a few months ago, but wants them eradicated to be on the safe side. Nutria "can basically ruin the ag industry here — they get in your fields, burrow into your canal ways, your waterways. They’re just a menace," he told Morehouse and Johnston.
California officials are looking to see how Louisiana has dealt with nutria. Louisiana has tried a few different approaches, from offering hunters a bounty for catching them, to promoting them as a delicacy to local chefs.
California might take inspiration from Louisiana, and Russia for that matter. Muscovites, it seems, can't get enough of nutria in their restaurants, Todd Masson reports for The Times-Picayune. Nutria live wild in southern Russia, where fur farmers likewise released them after failed business ventures. One Russian chef raved about the nutria, saying that the herbivore is a "very clean animal" that washes all its food before it eats, and is very high in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.