Loving That Lionfish – More Ways to Eat 'Em to Beat 'Em
Story updated to reflect new information on Norman's Lionfish
Lionfish, the notoriously invasive species that’s been taking over waters along the entire U.S. East Coast from Florida through Massachusetts as well as the Gulf and Caribbean, is now making its appearance in seafood markets, grocery stores and restaurants. And that’s seen as a positive step in dealing with this predator, which happens to also be delicious.
In the past few years, a few South Florida restaurants have featured lionfish on the menu, while fishing derbies have raised awareness among the sportfishing community. But now that Whole Foods Markets has added filleted lionfish to their seafood departments, more consumers will be able to buy and prepare this white, flaky fish – and support sustainable seafood.
“When it comes to species like lionfish that are invasive, Whole Foods Market is thrilled to be part of the solution to protecting our waterways and all the species that live there – all while providing a really interesting, delicious option for shoppers,” says David Ventura, Whole Foods Market seafood coordinator for the Florida region. Whole Foods Market only sells seafood that’s certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council or rated green or yellow by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “Once lionfish earned a green rating, we were so excited to offer shoppers a new, delicious species that also helps to address a serious environmental problem,” he says.
REEF's Lionfish Program
The problem is that lionfish are voracious predators that eat native fish and crustaceans, including grunts, snapper, nassau grouper and cleaner shrimp. Their venomous spines deter predators and can cause painful wounds, and their fast growth means they can outgrow the native species they compete with for food and space, according to the Key Largo-based REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation). This organization of divers and marine enthusiasts dedicated to ocean conservation includes a lionfish research program that tracks lionfish, hosts workshops and research trips and provides online information.
Creating a commercial lionfish market is one of REEF's projects, says Emily Stokes, lionfish program assistant at REEF. “Now that Whole Foods Markets has it, it’s really going to take off,” she says. “We think it’s great.” Stokes says lionfish is on the menu in local restaurants in the Keys and Fort Lauderdale, and outside of South Florida.
Lionfish for the Rest of the U.S.
There's now a dedicated wholesaler, Norman’s Lionfish, sourcing lionfish from a network of commercial divers in the Keys, Pensacola, Destin and Jacksonville, according to partner Ryan Chadwick. Lionfish has been on the menu at Norman's Cay restaurant in Manhattan; now, the wholesale operation aims to supply other restaurants as well as other Whole Foods Markets outside of Florida. Chadwick says he's noticed more national awareness over the past year. "Even in the Midwest, people are learning about them," he says. "It's an easier sell for us. When we put our lionfish mission cards on the table, people choose to order it." Recently, his Montauk restaurant went through 80 pounds in two days.
Even so, there are some challenges to delivering a steady supply of lionfish for a growing commercial market. There's no season for lionfish, but successful diving depends on the weather. And there's that matter of venomous spines, he says. "They're a lot harder than any other fish to get out of the water."
REEF has just released a second edition of The Lionfish Cookbook, including new recipes from guest chefs, as well as ways to catch, handle and prepare the catch. (You can download their recipe for Lionfish with Salsa Verde and buy the book here.) Watch how to fillet lionfish in this video.
Consumers can also see and taste lionfish at REEF’s Lionfish Derbies. Since they started organizing and conducting derbies in 2009, REEF has seen thousands of lionfish rounded up.
Upcoming summer derbies slated for 2016 include:
- July 16 at Fort Lauderdale’s 15th St. Fisheries
- August 13 at Palm Beach’s Loggerhead Marine Life Center
- Sept 10 at Key Largo’s Pennekamp State Park
Another place for diners to try the white, delicate lionfish meat is at a Lionfish Tasting Dinner Wed., June 22 at Piccolo Ristorante in Fort Lauderdale. The small restaurant hosted a similar dinner last fall, and it sold out, says Alison Avayu, Piccolo co-owner with her husband, chef Andres Avayu. Both are scuba divers who have seen firsthand the deteriorating reef system as the predatory fish continue to expand.
The chef finds lionfish naturally delicious and versatile, he says. “Lionfish takes on the flavor of anything you cook with – it’s a nice white, soft fish somewhere between hogfish and lobster, naturally buttery.” Cleaning the fish is not difficult, but you have to be cautious because of the venomous spines. A common misperception is that people will get sick from eating lionfish, Avayu says, but the fish itself is not poisonous. His menu includes lionfish corn dogs, smoked fish dip, a yucca croquette, and blackened lionfish tacos. They’re partnering with DiveBar to host the event, with proceeds going to REEF. Get tickets here.
Whether you choose to catch your own lionfish, buy it at Whole Foods Market (whole lionfish, caught in Florida waters, is $9.99 per pound, and their staff will remove spines for you) or Three Hands Fish, or order it at South Florida restaurants, you can feel especially good about your choice. Every lionfish in your stomach is one less in the sea.