Girded with venomous spikes and gifted with a prodigious birth rate, invasive lionfish are voracious eaters who can scour a tropical reef clean of other species of fish within months of their arrival. Lacking natural predators in their adopted home, they face few obstacles on their trail of conquest through the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean. But their downfall ultimately may be that they taste delicious.
Lionfish have been menacing North American reef fish since they were first spotted in the wild at Dania Beach, Florida in 1985. Nobody really knows how they arrived on this side of the world, but common theories are that they were either freed from aquariums or stowed away in ship’s ballast water from their native Indo-Pacific Ocean.
Since their arrival, the lionfish population density has ballooned to become 10 times larger than in their native ocean, stretching across 5,000 miles of coast from Rhode Island to Sao Paulo, according to World Bank. “In the Bahamas in 2004 there was a massive influx of lionfish, and in a one-hectare area 75% of the other fish were killed and eaten within five days,” says Jay Maly, the aquatic sports manager at Scuba St. Lucia, located at the Anse Chastanet resort.
Governments and fishermen still haven’t figured out how to deal with the problem on a large scale, considering the only current way to fish them is with a spear. But one of the leading ideas for a solution is to create a desire for people to eat the invasive predator – and demand for lionfish is growing in the kitchens of Caribbean resorts, restaurants in the U.S, and among shoppers at stores like Whole Foods, which has sold 52,000 pounds of lionfish over the past two years. Home cooks also can find lionfish for sale at Wegman’s supermarkets, typically for about $10 a pound.
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“It’s become a delicacy that’s highly in demand,” said Lad Akins, director of special projects at the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) and co-author of The Lionfish Cookbook. “It’s a wonderful tasting fish, it’s really good for you and it’s super easy to prepare.”
Mild, white lionfish fillets are compared to hogfish, flounder, snapper, or sole, and the fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids. Akins’ favorite recipe is a Bahamian-style ceviche similar to that used for conch, with diced lionfish marinated in lime juice with chopped onions and peppers.
Highly versatile, “Lionfish can be smoked, served as sashimi or ceviche, fried as tempura, steamed, or wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled,” said Matthew McHugh, executive sous chef at Anse Chastanet, which offers guests a weekly five-course lionfish dinner.
Popular preparations at the resort’s Treehouse restaurant include fillets poached in coconut oil with star anise or encrusted with panko and quinoa, but McHugh’s personal favorite is simply dusting the fish with sea salt and frying it in olive oil. “It’s a hard fish to mess up,” he said.
Demand for lionfish has grown alongside awareness about the threat these invaders pose to popular reef fish like clownfish, sergeant majors, and angelfish; lion fish also pose a risk to the reefs themselves by eating fish that feed on algae and help keep coral communities clean and healthy. “People like the idea that this is one of the most environmentally friendly fish we can eat,” said Akins.
Supply, however, is a challenge: lionfish still have to be hunted by scuba or freedivers wielding tridents. “It’s labor intensive to take them one-by-one,” said Akins, so while divers can bring in 20 to 50 pounds a day — enough to keep restaurants on Caribbean islands supplied — there simply aren’t enough fish being caught to rapidly expand the U.S. market.
It is widely accepted that we’ll never eradicate lionfish from the Atlantic and Caribban, but according to the World Bank, there is evidence that if we can reduce the number of lionfish below a certain threshold, native fish populations and the reefs they inhabit can start to recover.
Maly said that hunting has made a noticeable dent in the lionfish population at dive sites around St. Lucia, and divers are also trying to condition reef sharks and eels to add lionfish to their diet. Tourists, too, are getting involved: Scuba St. Lucia offers a lionfish hunting program approved by PADI, the world’s leading scuba diving organization.
Whole Foods, perhaps the world’s largest single retailer of lionfish, sponsors REEF’s annual Lionfish Derby, a series of fishing competitions in South Florida that also includes lionfish tastings, cooking demonstrations and chef competitions. Using Zookeeper spears, a team of three women brought in more than 900 lionfish in a single day to win the 2017 Lionfish World Championship, held each May in Pensacola.
Maly said that while some lionfish have learned to shy away from divers on reefs where hunting is common, more typically the fish present an immobile and easy target even for novices. “In a lot of Caribbean islands tourists are not allowed to spearfish at all, but in the last 10 years islands have made exceptions for lionfish,” he said.
“This is the best way to manage the influx of lionfish,” added Maly, who dreams of a day when lionfish are more commonly found between two buns than on his beloved tropical reefs. “If I could figure out a way to pitch them to McDonalds or Burger King for their fish sandwiches, I would.”