Sunday, November 29, 2020

Officials consider reducing population by eating them

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A demonstration on how to handle a Burmese Python during training for the Python Challenge at the University of Florida Research and Education Center in Davie, Florida in 2012.

PALM BEACH, Fla. – Florida is considering a new strategy to cull its Burmese python population by making the invasive snake what’s for dinner. 

An initiative between the state’s wildlife conservation commission and department of health is looking at mercury levels in pythons with the possibility of issuing advisories on safely eating the Everglades scourge.

Eric Sutton, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, mentioned the program this month during an update on the state’s response to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ declaration of war on the python last year and a charge to find novel ways to fight the apex predator.

In addition to hiring more hunters, investing in near-infrared technology to better see the snakes, and training python-sniffing dogs, Sutton told South Florida Water Management District board members that FWC is conducting mercury testing on python meat so that the health department could consider guidelines similar to what it issues for fish.

A decade-old study found Everglades National Park pythons carried alarming amounts of mercury, a neurotoxin that can impair brain functioning and damage the reproductive system. Pythons tested by U.S. Geological Survey research Scientist David Krabbenhoft had up to 3.5 parts per million of mercury.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends against eating anything with a concentration greater than 0.46 parts per million.

“We were not used to seeing numbers like that,” Krabbenhoft said. “These guys are just loaded with mercury.”

They can also be tasty if prepared correctly, said water management district python hunter Donna Kalil.

Kalil only eats python a few times a year, and uses a mercury testing kit to look for high levels of the chemical element in her meat.

While very chewy, Kalil said the white meat of the python can be used in recipes that normally call for chicken or pork. To make the python meat more tender, she uses a pressure cooker to cook it for 10 to 20 minutes before putting it in a recipe, such as a stir-fry, chili and spaghetti sauce.

“With a stir-fry you can add fresh ginger, garlic and vegetables of your choice and serve it over rice,” Kalil said. “Generally, when I pressure cook it for that, I’ll add some applesauce, spice and hot pepper, which gives it a nice flavor.”

She also eats python eggs, which she said are good hard boiled with Sriracha sauce.

“If you try to cook them like a fried egg, it will come out like a pancake and kind of rubbery,” Kalil said. “I add milk, garlic, mushrooms and peppers and scramble it also.”

Krabbenhoft said the high levels of mercury in pythons may be because their bodies aren’t efficient at getting rid of it. In his study, he also found that the link between high mercury levels and age or size was a lot fuzzier than with fish.

“As an organism eating low on the food chain, such as marsh rabbit or rat, we would never have expected them to have a lot of mercury,” Krabbenhoft said about pythons.

Much of the mercury in Florida comes from pollution in the sky, raining down from towering clouds that grab it in the upper levels of the atmosphere.

In Everglades National Park, the mercury mixes with sulfur coming from agriculture upstream. The sulfur oxidizes to sulfate, which energizes microbes that turn mercury into methylmercury, which is what accumulates in the food chain.

In a 2019 study, researchers from Florida Gulf Coast University and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, found lower levels of mercury in pythons that live in the southwest region of the state, including Picayune Strand State Forest and Big Cypress National Preserve.

Darren Rumbold, co-author of the study and director of FGCU’s Coastal Watershed Institute, said when the mercury in rain lands on dry ground or where there isn’t sulfur, it doesn’t turn to methylmercury.

“If the pythons are on higher ground, it’s likely they will have lower concentrations,” Rumbold said. “It’s very analogous to the alligator, where there are certain areas open to harvesting and for the sale of meat. But there are also areas that are hot spots and things shouldn’t be eaten.”

The study also found little correlation between python size, age and mercury level. In the ocean, the largest, oldest fish that have been feeding on smaller prey generally have the highest concentrations of mercury.

“It depends on where the python is eating in the food chain,” said Ian Bartoszek, co-author of the 2019 study and environmental science project manager for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “We were wondering in our area for the ones that had higher levels if they were closer to the coast and eating aquatic prey.”

Burmese pythons were first reported as established in Everglades National Park in 2000, according to research reported by the University of Florida.

But it wasn’t until March 2012 that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed them as an injurious species, prohibiting importation and shipment. Between 1996 and 2006, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates 99,000 Burmese python were imported to the U.S.

Today, there is no good estimate of how many pythons live wild in South Florida.

Python hunters from the water management district and FWC have removed about 6,300 pythons since 2017, with a recent record catch coming in at 18-feet, 9-inches.

“There’s only one thing that will save us and that’s a hard freeze across South Florida,” Rumbold said about ridding the area of pythons. “But any little effort will slow it down some.”

It’s not the first time a harmful invasive species has been made a meal. Lionfish is also edible and on the menu in restaurants such as Lionfish in Delray Beach where you can get it as a ceviche or fried whole with charred greens and Italian-style bagna cauda sauce.

Kalil, who also uses python eggs to bake with, including in cookie recipes, said she hopes python meat catches on if deemed safe because she doesn’t like killing an animal without being able to use all parts of it.

Her python meat marketing suggestion: Chicken of the Glades.

Follow Palm Beach reporter Kimberly Miller on Twitter: @Kmillerweather

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