Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Lionfish: a Dangerous Delicacy


“naplesHave you heard of Lionfish? Many have, but that may be the extent of what is known- just that they exist. You’ve likely seen one, at least in pictures. They are the incredibly beautiful saltwater fish found in many of the more elaborate saltwater aquariums in both private homes and public spaces. They are spectacular to look at, like an elaborate piece of art, striped in pearl and maroon. With fins akin to Leonardo Da Vinci’s wings, with spines for their structure- coincidentally the spines are also venomous, and they gracefully float through the warm waters of the Keys and the Caribbean.

That, however, is not where lionfish belong. Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific region (The northern section of the Indian Ocean- east of Africa, south of India and Asia, north of Australia) and the Red Sea. However, that changed dramatically beginning in 1985 in Delay Beach with a homeowner who no longer wanted to care for their aquarium. They dumped their lionfish in the ocean- not dissimilar to how the invasive spread of iguanas or pythons began here in South Florida. Since its first sighting in 1985, the lionfish population has exploded with the female lionfish releasing tens of thousands of eggs at a time, roughly every three to four days. The lionfish can now be found from Brazil to New York.

Lionfish have no natural predators, apart from humans, and the local fish don’t recognize the lionfish as a predator so they don’t make an effort to avoid them. Lionfish eating habits are extreme. They eat ravenously until they are gorged, and they eat everything, fish, crustaceans, mollusks and octopi.

As a result, our local populations of native fish are being decimated, including local commercial fish like snapper and grouper. Our local gulf’s future is under threat, along with the future of the coral reefs those fish help protect.

Lionfish spines happen to be venomous, but that’s not the problem. What is dangerous about them is their unchecked proliferation. So what can be done? Since Aug. 1, 2014, the importation and sale of lionfish have been banned by State wildlife officials to avoid furthering the infestation. However, that just stops adding to the increase. In 2010 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) unveiled its Eat Lionfish campaign, urging chefs, wholesalers and fishing communities to promote the savory menace as a food choice.

As is the case with many sought after delicacies,  the species takes measures to protect itself, much like cactus, sea urchin and lobster. Lionfish are considered an exotic delicacy and there is no harm in eating lionfish meat. Once you dispose of the spines, you’re free to prepare your lionfish as you choose. Fortunately for the eco-friendly fish lovers out there, lionfish are delicious. It is a bit difficult to catch, however, as they are only caught by spearfishing.

If you are pricked, as those who keep them in aquariums can attest, it’s like an extreme bee sting. To counteract it, put it immediately in the hottest water you can stand as the proteins that cause the pain are heat-labile. If you choose to prepare them from a whole fish,  it’s no different than handling cactus, sea urchin, jellyfish or the like. Pay attention. If you don’t, you may have a reminder for a few days.

Their white, flaky, buttery meat lends itself to any number of different recipes. In fact, there are many restaurants throughout the Caribbean and United States that are featuring lionfish on their menus to promote awareness while satisfying customers. From small seafood roadside venues to the poshest NYC restaurants.

Lionfish has firm, white flesh that is slightly buttery in taste. For many, it resembles grouper or mahi-mahi, while others liken it to mild snapper. The difference in taste relies not only on the method of preparation but also on what that particular lionfish ate.

The Reef Foundation lists nearly 50 restaurants, including 10 in South Florida, on the east coast and in the Keys that serve lionfish. There is even a Lionfish Cookbook with proceeds supporting marine research and the lionfish-reduction program.

The legendary Shangri-La Springs in Bonita Springs, a beacon of conservation and sustainability in Southwest Florida, features lionfish in their restaurant. They were just interviewed Friday by WGCU about nuances of such an endeavor. Click here to listen to that interview.   Call 239-949-0749 for reservations.

Your local fishmonger will remove the spines and filet the fish, so all you need to do is choose how to cook it. Keep in mind the fillets are quite small, so plan accordingly. Like other mild white fish, lionfish can be prepared in a multitude of ways.

Want to prepare it yourself? Whole Foods announced in spring 2016 that it would begin selling lionfish in 26 Florida stores and it can often be found in Publix supermarkets too.

It’s the little things that can add up to make a big difference. Are you an adventurous foodie? Are you worried about our oceans? Do you want to improve your cooking skills? Are you concerned about our environment? Try lionfish, because that will make a difference. Head to Whole Foods and order it, better yet, plan a dinner party around it- and cheers to fine dining and saving our seas!

Have ideas you’d like to add? Need more suggestions? Let me know!

Julie Koester is CEO of Life with Moxie, a Lifestyle Revolution Company and Host of Life with Moxie Radio, Saturday’s at 1pm on 98.9 WGUF in Southwest Florida. You can reach her at
Passionate Living by Design, That’s Life with Moxie


Lionfish Facts

Restaurants Serving Lionfish

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