Okay so this meandering is a little off my usual topics. However, you know when something keeps on popping up over and over and over again? Well that topic for me is lionfish. Crazy I know. See, I am a big fan of ABC's Shark Tank. For those of you who don't know, Shark Tank is a weekly show that has entrepreneurs come in front of a panel of “shark” investors to pitch their company for investment dollars. It’s addictive! It is interesting to see how businesses present themselves to investors and what people have come up with for a business.
A couple of weeks ago while watching a summer rerun of Shark Tank that I had missed originally, a company presented their business plan to help control the lionfish problem. In the same week, I came across a couple of press releases for Southeast Green. I couldn’t get away from lionfish.
Traditional Fisheries, a firm out of Minneapolis, has found the solution to the out of control lionfish problem. Introduce lionfish to American menus. Long story short, they didn’t get funding. One of the major reasons is because you would have to educate the public about the problem and that could take years. So consider this my effort to help with public education.
So why am I picking on lionfish? Because they are huge problem in the Caribbean, East Coast of Florida, the Southern Gulf of Mexico and they have migrated as far north as Virginia. Oh, and ps, they are not a native fish of those locations. They are native to the Indo-Pacific Ocean not the Atlantic. They have venomous spines to protect them for other fish and can cause anywhere from moments of unpleasant stinging in humans to a rare hospital trip. However, its spines have venom not poison. The flesh is completely fine to eat. In fact according to the Sharks which include Mark Cuban and Daymond John of FUBU fame, they are delicious!
So the real problem?
Lionfish have no known predator in the Caribbean and Atlantic, partly due to those stinging spines. They also happen to love each other which means lots of little lionfish, and they feed on, well just about everything, especially other baby fish. Scientists believe the problem happened in the 70s when some saltwater fish tank owners decided to dump them in the ocean.
Many of us who enjoy our coasts don’t realize that bays and inter-coastal waterways are the nurseries of our gulfs and oceans. Reefs also serve that purpose and lionfish have made bays and reefs their playground. You wouldn’t take a predator into your baby’s nursery. That’s exactly why you don’t want lionfish in our saltwater nurseries.
I recently interviewed Jim Oppenborn of St. Lucie County, Florida Marine Source Coordinator on Speaking of Green. He could have spent the whole 25 minutes on lionfish. He listed other contributing factors to the problem: you can’t hook fish lionfish, you can trap but with limited success, you can spear them but that can damage the reefs if you miss, and they have been found as deep as 1,000 ft. Not a lot of reefs down there or divers for that matter. This does mean a lionfish tournament that can clear a reef in a day, will be populated the next day with more lionfish.
Also, because they are abundant and über predators, they are a real hazard to efforts either working to protect reefs or rebuild them or fisheries because lionfish eat all the other fish. In other words, they are eco-habitat super storms.
The solution – Eat more lionfish
So even though there are all these challenges, the good news is in a world that is crazy about fish and facing major extinction of several species, the abundant lionfish tastes like flounder.
For those of you who aren’t aware of flounder, I consider it an old school fish. It’s hard to find it on the menu in a lot of places now. When I was a child, it was on every seafood menu in Mobile, where I spent my formative years. In fact, my Grandmother loved it. I am not sure why it’s gone now. It wasn’t the most attractive fish and it was served whole so I am sure that has something to do with it. We know how people feel about seeing whole fish nowadays. Enter the lionfish. According Jim Oppenborn, a friend of his says it tastes like flounder which is a mild, flaky, just enough brine flavor to know you are eating a fruit of the sea. There are others who have compared to mahimahi and grouper. In the end…tasty!
So it tastes great. It is abundant. It is a little more difficult to catch but totally economically feasible. We solve a true environmental hazard. Why can’t you find it? The answer is simple. We don’t eat it, partly because it’s not on the menu, but we would if it is available but it’s not, so we don’t. You know the chicken and the egg thing.
There’s an easy way to fix this. We need our local foodies, our sustainable chefs and seafood lovers everywhere to start demanding lionfish on the menu. That’s it. If there was a demand then the supply side would be easy. There are plenty of fishermen willing to supply lionfish, they just need to know they can sell what they catch.
So who’s with me? Do you have a relationship with a chef? How about asking them to do a lionfish special one night and have a big tasting? Eat it fried, steamed, blackened, in parchment, with citrus, with spice, in butter or olive oil. It also can be used in one of my favorites, ceviche. I’ll send you contacts to get lionfish for the event.
To beat them all you have to do is eat them.
P.S. There is a small handful of US restaurants serving them. Find the list here. Scroll to the bottom.