The Luscious Lionfish
Beautiful, deadly and (apparently) tasty, lionfish have been invading the coastal waters of the Atlantic at an alarming speed, destroying coral reef ecosystems. Native to the Indo-Pacific region, their introduction to the Caribbean is believed to be a result of hurricanes and tank releases during the early 1990’s. They have been spotted along the eastern seaboard spanning as far north as Rhode Island to as far south as Venezuela, and have recently reached the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary off the coasts of Texas.
Why are they so invasive? There are several reasons. Massive venomous spines discourage even the hungriest of predators. The lionfish, on the other hand, are voracious hunters, swallowing prey up to 2/3 of their own body length. Also, they make lots of little lionfish, with the females laying more than 2 million eggs a year. Finally, they can live in multiple coastal habitats, including coral reefs and mangroves, and at depths ranging from close to shore to more than 300 meters. It is truly a perfect storm of characteristics that make them prevalent and growing more so by the day.
When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. When life hands you lionfish, make…a lovely sauté with buttered greens and some crisp veggies. Some governments (such as the U.S. and Jamaica) are initiating campaigns to promote human consumption of lionfish, training fishermen how to safely catch, handle, clean and prepare them. Public education campaigns are helping to promote lionfish consumption and develop a viable market. Many hotels and restaurants in the Caribbean have caught the wave, matching an abundant food source to the increasing requests from tourists for this unique menu item.
At the Fish House Encore restaurant in Key Largo, you can get a fried whole lionfish appetizer with the spines still intact (for added zing). Kev’s Café in Islamorada, serves a Southwestern-style Lionfish Chowder. For those who want more than just a small taste, the Key Largo Conch House in the Florida Keys serves a veritable feast: Lionfish Benedict, Lionfish Tacos, and special dinners such as Grilled Lionfish with Avocado Salsa or Coconut Macadamia Lionfish with Orange Glaze.
And it is not just Florida restaurants that are getting in on the trend. At Fleet Landing Restaurant in Charleston, S.C., the chef has served lionfish for special events both potato-encrusted then pan-fried and flash-fried with lemon-ginger sauce. El Fogon De La Curva in Rincon, Puerto Rico consistently has grilled fresh lionfish on the menu. Flash fried fillets flavored with chili, fennel and mustard seed are a popular menu item at Michael’s restaurant on Grand Cayman. There is even the Lionfish Cookbook, a colorful celebration of the many ways to cook this scourge, produced by Reef.org.
Now the question is simple: can our consumption keep up with the exploding population of lionfish? Really, just how hungry are we?