With the growing focus on endangered species and diminishing fish stocks, it seems odd to report on one marine species that is doing quite well these days. In fact, it’s doing so well that it has gained the attention of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which sees the species as “one of the greatest threats of this century to tropical Atlantic reefs.”
It’s also gaining the attention of chefs, cookbook authors and opportunistic fishing enthusiasts — in fact, just about anyone that might have an occupational interest in harvesting large numbers of exquisitely beautiful, venomous fish with a mean sting.
Meet the lowly lionfish, which was at one time indigenous to remote corners of the warm Indo-Pacific. These days, however, its habitat can be found far beyond the waters of Australia or Papua New Guinea. Since 1985, when it was first spotted off the coast of Florida, its habitat has mushroomed, infesting Atlantic coastlines from Caracas, Venezuela, to New Jersey and New York.
Most alarmingly, say experts, is that it has found a haven among the ailing Atlantic reefs, preying on the very species that help to keep this delicate ecosystem alive. Overfishing, pollution and warming waters due to climate change have all contributed to the precarious health of the Atlantic coral reefs.
Fortunately, there’s an answer, say experts, and it oddly may fit right in with our concern for declining fish stocks.
With a growing compendium of websites and apps at access, scientists have begun promoting the un-scientific answer to invasive species control: a fork and knife.
“Got to eat ’em to beat ’em,” writes National Geographic Young Explorer Erin Spencer, who offers tasty recipes on how to cook the spiny fish straight from the Keys and interviews fishermen on how to catch the lionfish safely.
The Lionfish Portal, sponsored by NOAA, lists tips on how recreational divers and commercial fishing companies can harvest the predator, and how to avoid the sting that diver Mike Ryan notes “won’t kill you, but [will] make you wish you were dead.”
For those who want to help out the environment but aren’t really sure they have the moxie to harvest their own lionfish, there’s a host of restaurants up and down the U.S. East Coast that now advertise the delicacy, attesting to its growing availability in warming waters. There’s also the option of tracking down a commercial source and purchasing a recipe book through the Lionfish Portal.
Of course, those who do should read the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s warning concerning ciguatera, a toxin that can also be found in a large number of other commercially sold fish, from snapper to mackerel.
Most restaurants that serve lionfish are still having a problem getting a ready supply to offer on a daily basis. If NOAA’s campaign is successful, however, this pricey fish — which ranges wholesale around $20 a pound — may become the next culinary rage, and hopefully a help for the embattled Atlantic reefs.
Image of red lionfish: NOAA/Paula Whitfield