TURN­ING THE TABLES, ONE BITE AT A TIME

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Lois K. Solomon Staff writer

As col­or­ful li­on­fish feast upon na­tive marine life, a cam­paign has be­gun to get Florida fish-lovers to de­vour them in re­turn.

Butwhile there is de­mand for the “nat­u­rally but­tery” white fish, it still is not widely avail­able. Restau­rants say they get ship­ments ev­ery few­months, mostly when lob­ster fish­er­men catch them in their nets. Lob­ster sea­son ended March 31and will be­gin again in Au­gust.

Still, as divers ex­plor­ing Florida’s coasts be­come in­creas­ingly aware of the im­por­tance of rid­ding the ocean of the preda­tory pests, many are bring­ing large hauls to the sur­face, cre­at­ing new sources of the fish for restau­rants and whole­salers.

“Our goal is to have it ev­ery day,” said David Ven­tura, seafood co­or­di­na­tor for Whole Foods Mar­kets’ Florida

re­gion. “They have be­come quite a con­ver­sa­tion piece.”

Whole Foods and other fish­mon­gers are sell­ing them whole or fileted, and restau­rants are serv­ing them grilled, fried or sauteed, with soy sauce or squeezed le­mon, on top of rice or chopped up in tapas. So howdo they taste? High school stu­dents at Trin­ity Chris­tian Academy in Lake Worth looked on with skep­ti­cism re­cently as teacher Faith Stur­gis fried a few pounds on a mini-grill in her teacher-hus­band Dan’s bi­ol­ogy class­room. They­wanted the stu­dents to un­der­stand the im­por­tance of the eat­ing cam­paign.

Stu­dent Sarah Bres­nick was not a fan of the fishy aroma or the sa­vory kick, say­ing “It tastes weird.”

But Brasil Cum­ber­batch rel­ished his chunky sam­ple, ex­plain­ing, “They eat all our grouper, so that’s why they’re sweet.”

Li­on­fish, pop­u­lar in aquar­i­ums for their neon col­ors, maze-like mid­dles and flam­boy­ant spines, were first dis­cov­ered on a reef off Da­nia Beach in 1985. They have proven to be quick-breed­ing in­vaders that eat just about any­thing, in­clud­ing beloved Florida fish such as grouper and snap­per.

Now divers are find­ing them in new set­tings, even deeper in the ocean, and they have spread to North Carolina, the Caribbean, the Florida Keys and the Gulf coast.

Divers have been urged to spear them and lob­ster fish­er­men have been asked not to re­lease them back into the wa­ter when they ap­pear in their nets. A derby off Fort Laud­erdale beach last year net­ted 1,250 of the crit­ters; the next hunt off the city’s coast, spon­sored by the ocean con­ser­va­tion or­ga­ni­za­tion REEF, will be July 15.

“I can’t an­swer if it’s making a dent,” said Amanda Nal­ley, spokes­woman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Com­mis­sion. “We don’t know how many are out there.”

Nal­ley said there is lots of mis­in­for­ma­tion about eat­ing li­on­fish, es­pe­cially about the ven­omous spines. The venom is not present in the li­on­fish meat. But an in­jec­tion into the hu­man bloodstream by one of the 18 spines can be ex­cru­ci­at­ingly painful.

Chef An­dres Avayu, who once got pricked as he skinned the fish, knows this from ex­pe­ri­ence.

“I went to the espresso ma­chine and put my fin­ger in the hot­wa­ter, as hot as I could stand it,” said Avayu, chef at Pic­colo Ris­torante in Fort Laud­erdale.

This first aid is con­sid­ered the­most ef­fec­tive tech­nique for treat­ing a li­on­fish sting.

The sting has not de­terred Avayu from serv­ing the fish, which he said come in to the restau­rant ev­ery two or three months. He de­scribed the taste as “nat­u­rally but­tery.”

He serves them with a sauce of roasted bell pep­pers, caramelized onions and herbs, some­times on top of zuc­chini and a potato pan­cake.

He has also made a “li­on­fish corn­dog,” which he serves with a honey pear mus­tard dip­ping sauce.

Pic­colo is work­ing to cul­ti­vate a li­on­fish-loving clien­tele. The restau­rant sends out an email blast to thou­sands of cus­tomers when the staff knows a ship­ment is com­ing in. If it’s a last-minute delivery, busi­ness man­ager Ali­son Avayu tele­phones cus­tomers who have or­dered li­on­fish be­fore, usu­ally making about10 calls.

At Whole Foods, the smoked ver­sion of li­on­fish is priced at $10.99 a pound; a fil­leted fish is $29.99 a pound. But the most pop­u­lar ver­sion, the whole fish, costs the con­sumer $9.99 a pound, he said.

Cod& Capers Seafood in North Palm Beach charges $11.95 a pound. Man­ager Jessica Za­bel said the store sold 450 pounds to restau­rants be­tween Mi­ami and Vero Beach in March.

“That’s a lot, con­sid­er­ing they only weigh a pound each,” Za­bel said. “There are al­ways peo­ple whowant to try some­thing new. It never goes to waste.”

As restau­rants ex­per­i­ment with dif­fer­ent ways to cook the preda­tor, divers have been brain­storm­ing strate­gies for get­ting fel­low fish to eat their en­emy.

Matt Har­ri­son, a diver and Trin­ity Chris­tian’ s dean of stu­dents, said he and fel­low divers have been dic­ing up their speared li­on­fish un­der­wa­ter and sprin­kling them over reefs as a way to feed other fish.

Har­ri­son said he is con­fi­dent the cam­paign to erad­i­cate the li­on­fish will be suc­cess­ful.

“If there’s any­thing hu­man be­ings are good at,” he said, “it’s wip­ing out a species.”

Stu­dents Tyler Hall, left, and Zoe Pierce study a li­on­fish at Trin­ity Chris­tian Academy in LakeWorth.

PHOTOS BY ZAK BEN­NETT/COUR­TESY

Trin­ity Chris­tian Academy teacher Faith Stur­gis cooks up some li­on­fish for stu­dents to de­cide how tasty the in­va­sive, and rav­en­ous, preda­tor might be.

ZAK BEN­NETT/COUR­TESY

Trin­ity Chris­tian Academy teacher Dan Stur­gis holds up a li­on­fish for his class in LakeWorth.

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