Eating Our Way Out

For most people, eating a fresh seafood meal means ordering the catch of the day or choosing between lobster and crab. But within the past several years an exotic and extremely sustainable option from the other side of the world has begun to show up on menus and grocery store seafood counters: the invasive lionfish.

The Perfect Invader

Lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific and Red Sea, were first documented off the coast of southeastern Florida in 1985 and have since spread throughout the western Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Likely in the region as a result of aquarium releases, these fish have no known predators. Equipped with 18 venomous spines, ornate, flowing fins and a bold, striped body pattern, lionfish may appear more ornamental than detrimental, but these predatory fish can wreak environmental havoc if left unchecked. More than 120 species of native fish and invertebrates have been found in lionfish stomachs, according to marine ecologist Stephanie Green, Ph.D., and lionfish compete with larger species, such as grouper, for both food and habitat. These impacts can be devastating; lionfish have been shown to reduce the biomass of native reef fish by an average of 65 percent, according to a 2012 study by Green.

As more people become aware of the threats lionfish pose to native species and ecosystems, an increasing number of seafood suppliers, divers, chefs and consumers are realizing that the best way to control the effects of this invasion might just be to eat our way out of it, one lionfish at a time.

Malicious Yet Delicious

Lionfish have a flaky, white meat that can be compared to hogfish or snapper. The firm texture and buttery, mild flavor of lionfish can be featured in an endless number of recipes — grilled, blackened or fried is just the beginning. Ever tasted white-cheddar-popcorn-crusted lionfish or coconut-breaded lionfish tenders? These and many other unique recipes are featured in The Lionfish Cookbook published by Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF). The second edition of the book, released in 2016, has more than 60 appetizer and entrée recipes highlighting lionfish. The book was recently nominated for three 2017 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, including Best Sustainable Food Book, Best Fish and Seafood Book and Best Fundraising/Charity Book. Professional chefs and restaurateurs from all over the invaded region who serve lionfish in the interest of promoting sustainable seafood choices submitted some of the recipes.

Learn More About Eating Lionfish

Lionfish Recipes

Get to Know Lionfish

Several restaurants featured in The Lionfish Cookbook, including Fish House Encore in Key Largo, Fla., and Piccolo Ristorante in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., have hosted special dinners with several courses of lionfish entrees and a paired wine. Events like these offer an opportunity to spread awareness and educate attendees about how they can combat the invasion by eating delicious lionfish dishes and asking for lionfish to be served at dining establishments. The phrase “eat ’em to beat ’em” has become a call to action for sustainable seafood supporters throughout the invaded region who hope that increased demand for the fish will lead to a bigger supply.

How to Catch a Lionfish

Lisa Stengel holds an 18-inch lionfish she speared at a REEF Invasive Lionfish Program derby.
Lisa Stengel holds an 18-inch lionfish she speared at a REEF Invasive Lionfish Program derby.

Studies have shown that over time native fish populations are able to recover if lionfish are continuously removed from invaded reefs. While it is not difficult to capture these slow-moving bottom-dwellers, you do need the proper equipment and knowledge of how to safely handle the fish to avoid their venomous spines. Divers can use a pole spear to remove lionfish, and it is helpful to have a containment device such as a ZooKeeper to safely store speared fish. Individual divers who hunt lionfish may choose to sell their catch to a local restaurant or seafood market, but many recreational divers simply take their fish home to prepare a fresh, sustainable meal.

Teams of recreational divers can catch hundreds of lionfish in single-day fishing events known as lionfish derbies, which occur in many U.S. cities on the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts and throughout the Caribbean. Each lionfish brought into the competition is measured, and the largest fish are filleted in front of many eager onlookers. The fillets from these fish are used to encourage commercial market development, and some are served to the derby attendees as ceviche, a dish consisting of lionfish marinated and cured in lime juice and tossed with diced vegetables and cilantro.

In recent years, some lionfish derbies have expanded with the goals of reaching a broader audience and facilitating market growth by including samples of lionfish dishes prepared by local restaurants. Some have even included lionfish culinary competitions featuring prominent chefs and judges. Two of REEF’s upcoming summer lionfish derbies (in Sarasota and Palm Beach County, Fla.) will include lionfish cooking competitions with opportunities for the public to sample the versatile, tasty invader.

Biting Back

A commercial lionfish market has been slow to develop, but progress has been recently made to bring lionfish to the forefront of seafood consumers’ minds and plates. In 2015 Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, a program designed to help consumers make sustainable seafood choices, labeled lionfish a “Best Choice,” the program’s highest rating. This seal of approval led Whole Foods to begin selling lionfish in their stores. In 2016 all Whole Foods stores in Florida began selling lionfish, and there is hope that this may expand into more stores in the future. Consumers who want to purchase lionfish but are wary of their venomous spines have no reason to worry — Whole Foods employees will remove the spines and fillet the fish, so all discerning seafood shoppers need to do is decide how to prepare their lionfish.

While it is very unlikely that lionfish in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico will ever be completely eradicated, controlling their populations and minimizing their impacts may be made more feasible by adding them to menus and grocery store seafood departments. Divers, snorkelers, conservationists, chefs, seafood eaters and spearfishers can all take active roles in the fight against these malicious but delicious invaders.

How To Help

Whether you dive, fish or simply love eating seafood, you can help combat the lionfish invasion.

Remove: Safely collect any lionfish you see while diving or snorkeling. (Be sure to check local regulations first).

Consume: Ask restaurants to serve lionfish, and order it when you see it on the menu.

Report: Download REEF’s lionfish sightings app for iPhone or Android to report any lionfish sightings throughout the invaded range.

© Alert Diver — Q2 2017