Anchored down in the middle of glass-like, sky blue waters off the coast of Eleuthera in the Bahamas, I was finishing up a leftover bite of conch salad as Tricia Ferguson, author of The Lionfish Cookbook, slipped on a wetsuit and prepared for a hunt.
“OK, I’m going in!” Ferguson announced—spear firmly in hand—as she leapt into the Caribbean Ocean from our boat.
Setting down my snack (and ignoring the “wait 20 minutes to swim after eating” rule), I pulled on a pair of flippers, secured my snorkel and followed, watching as Ferguson captured the burnt sienna-and-white striped, fan-like fish that would soon become our dinner. Though just a 50 minute flight from Miami, I suddenly felt half a world away from the mainland.
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It’s easy to see why amateur aquarium keepers have long coveted the lionfish, with its highly ornamental appearance that seems simultaneously delicate and tough. Their current role in the ecosystem of the Caribbean and the American Gulf South, however, isn’t quite so innocent. The fish is a native of the Indian Ocean, but found its way into new waters when—rumor has it—an irresponsible aquarium owner dumped his tank’s contents off the coast of Florida in the mid-80s. (Others believe the destruction caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 added additional lionfish to the mix.)
(Photo: Sarah Baird)
Today, lionfish are damaging the delicate ecosystem of Gulf South and the Caribbean at an alarming rate: it is an invasive species with no known predators in their freshly-adopted, non-native waters. They also reproduce at lightning speeds (meaning there’s no way to capture them before they multiply) and have venomous spikes that are, rightfully intimidating to divers.
Increasingly, marine conservationists and aquatic experts, such as the Key Largo-based group Reef Environmental Education Foundation (R.E.E.F.) have started encouraging an outside-the-box approach to tackling the lionfish problem—eat them.
“While it is highly unlikely that lionfish will ever be eradicated from their invaded range, it is very possible that…their impacts [can be] minimized simply by adding them to the menu,” Ferguson and co-author Lad Akins write in the introduction to their book. “Lionfish are a tasty, nutritious, and environmentally conscious seafood choice. There is simply no ‘greener’ fish to eat!”
Chefs have taken up the challenge with gusto. Lionfish now flows on and off of menus across the South, with many restaurants “eating the enemy” as a way of reflecting their larger commitment to regional seafood sustainability.
In New Orleans, Chef Tenney Flynn of G.W. Fins has long been an advocate for eating lionfish, and is the first person I heard talk about the critter as a potential delicacy. (The fish has seen a recent surge off of both the Mississippi and Louisiana coast, but is a surprisingly rare find in Alabama waters.) South Florida remains the primary destination for eating the fish, with restaurants from Jupiter to Santa Rosa Beach plating it up. Even in New York, Norman’s Cay, a Caribbean-themed restaurant, has embraced a “lionfish mission,” noting that, “lionfish [are destroying] reef fish populations in Florida, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico, in some places by as much as 90-percent.”
For chefs, the lionfish’s canvas-like versatility is a key strength. It’s difficult to imagine a preparation—from beer-battered, to sashimi, to vegetable-packed kebabs—that wouldn’t work.
(Photo: Sarah Baird)
If you’re curious where to try or request lionfish, the Lionfish Hunters Association has an ever-building list of spots to sample the eco-friendly delicacy, which I found to be flaky, supple, and almost buttery when snacking on it back at The Cove.
For those looking to take it one step further, below is a lionfish recipe easy to whip up at home.
Coconut-Baked Lionfish (Recipe courtesy Tricia Ferguson, Assistant General Manager of The Cove and author, Lionfish Cookbook)
Ingredients 2 teaspoons ginger, grated 4 red chilies, diced 8 lionfish filets 2 cups coconut milk 3 limes, juiced 4 tablespoons fish sauce 2 tablespoons sesame oil 3 tablespoons fresh cilantro Cilantro leaves, garnish To Assemble 1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. 2. Place lionfish in an ovenproof dish. 3. Combine coconut milk, lime juice, fish sauce, sesame oil, grated ginger, cilantro, and diced chilies in a small bowl. Stir. 4. Pour mixture over lionfish, and bake for 15 minutes. 5. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve.