TURNING THE TABLES, ONE BITE AT A TIME
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.
Trinity Christian Academy teacher Faith Sturgis cooks up some lionfish for students to decide how tasty the invasive, and ravenous, predator might be.
Trinity Christian Academy teacher Dan Sturgis holds up a lionfish for his class in LakeWorth.