American seafood enthusiasts have spent years dining on salmon, shrimp, and the occasional mahi mahi. Now a new, rather unexpected fish is starting to creep onto menus and into seafood shelves at supermarkets: lionfish.
As a growing number of people become aware of the vast environmental havoc this small fish can wreak, a group of fish vendors, chefs, and diners are realizing that the best way to control the threat might just be to eat our way out of it.
Seafood Watch, a program that assesses and rates the sustainability of seafood options, started looking into lionfish last year after fielding inquiries from local chefs and consumers who were interested in eating the species. At first, the organization declined to provide a recommendation because there is not yet an established commercial fishery for lionfish, said Ryan Bigelow, outreach program manager for the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. But the more they heard, the more interested they became, and, in October 2015, the group released its first report on lionfish, labeling it a “best choice,” the highest available rating.
“It really is a grassroots sort of campaign that pushed it into the spotlight,” Bigelow said.
The Seafood Watch rating, in turn, sparked interest from Whole Foods, which only sells fish that has been highly rated by the organization.
Though the natural foods chain told NPR in 2011 that there wasn’t enough buyer interest to research the possibility of carrying lionfish, the company recently told Civil Eats that it will begin selling lionfish in its stores over the next six months, beginning on the West coast.
The announcement is welcomed by Justine Burt, a Palo Alto resident who had been petitioning the store to carry lionfish since she first tasted it on a trip to Belize last year. “It’s something that needs to be eaten, instead of fish coming from fisheries that are collapsing,” she said.
Until recently, creating a reliable supply chain for this hard-to-catch fish was a major challenge. But the recent moves by both Seafood Watch and Whole Foods hints that the lionfish market might now be on the cusp of entering the seafood mainstream.
“It has a white, flaky delicious meat—a lot of restaurants are very interested in that,” said Emily Stokes, lionfish program assistant at the Reef Environmental Education Foundation in Key Largo, Florida. “The problem is the supply.”
To most Americans, the lionfish is better known as a pet than as a meal. The species, native to the South Pacific and Indian oceans, boasts dramatic stripes, flamboyant fins, and intimidating, venomous spines. They have long been a popular choice for saltwater fish tanks. No one is certain how the fish made their way into the wild, but it is believed that some were released into the ocean by aquarium owners at least 30 years ago. The hearty species took it from there.
“They are such voracious eaters, they will eat just about anything, and because of their poisonous spikes, nothing can really eat them,” said Bigelow. “Once they hit the waters around Florida, there was really no stopping them–they were clearing out reefs.”
Today, lionfish have spread throughout the coral reefs of the Caribbean, where they prey on and compete with other species, generally decimating the native ecosystem. In areas the fish has invaded, the biomass of native reef fish species has dropped by an average of 65 percent, according to one study.
Lionfish can only be removed from the ecosystem without damaging other species by spear-fishing, however. And professional spear fishermen have generally been more apt to go after familiar and reliable targets like group or snapper, rather than take chances with the fish’s venomous spines and the uncertain demand for the fish, Stokes said.
But that might be changing as chefs and restaurateurs like New York City’s Ryan Chadwick are developing demand for the prickly predator. Chadwick opened his Caribbean-themed restaurant Norman’s Cay in 2013, shortly after he first learned about the lionfish invasion. From the beginning, the invasive fish was a central item on his menu: jerk lionfish, lionfish ceviche, curried lionfish. He trained waitstaff to explain the lionfish problem to diners and made literature on the issue available.
Customers were very responsive and soon supply was unable to keep up with demand. Chadwick had been diving for his own lionfish, taking regular trips to the Bahamas and bringing back coolers stocked with 50 pounds of fish at a time. As the popularity of the species grew, he developed a network of Caribbean spear-fishermen whom he could count on to supply the fish.
Now he is in the midst of launching what he believes to be the country’s only lionfish wholesale business, Norman’s Lionfish.
“We’ve got divers calling us every day,” Chadwick said. “Now my job is to push this nationally to other chefs, other restaurants.”
He is also working on developing a trap that will lure in lionfish without accidentally catching the very native species he is trying to protect. If he can find a way to catch more of the fish without depending on labor-intensive spear-fishing, it would suddenly become much easier to scale up lionfish sales and have a bigger impact on damaged reefs.
Still, Chadwick remains realistic about the chances of solving the lionfish problem once and for all.
“I don’t think eradication is possible—it’s part of our ecosystem now,” he said. “We just have to figure out ways to deal with it.”
Photos by Ethan Daniels/Shutterstock.