Scourge of the Lionfish Part 3: The Newest Fish in the Kitchen

As first posted on Mark Bittman's, September 10, 2012. 

In my last two posts we discovered that the world’s worst invading alien might be a fish, native to the west Pacific and Indian Ocean, that is now spreading out of control in the Atlantic from South America to New England. The lionfish’s venomous spines ward off all native predators, while its own appetite makes it a super-predator of juvenile native reef fishes.

The only countering hope is the baddest predator in the sea, whose appetite out-eats all others. Look in the mirror, my friend.

Efforts to commercialize the lionfish are new, because the fish itself is pretty new here. In Florida, I was told that fillets are being sold wholesale for around $12 a pound. This seems a decent price but lionfish are rather small; few of them are big enough to yield a one-pound fillet. Their head is relatively large, and fillets are only about a third of the fish’s whole weight. Nonetheless, a new, ubiquitous fish that presents such a threat to reef fish also presents fishermen with new opportunity.

So I, and our video crew shooting an episode for the upcoming PBS television series Saving the Ocean, met up with American entrepreneur David Johnson who is helping fishermen in several Caribbean locales connect their lionfish landings with restaurants in the States. Through his company Traditional Fisheries, Johnson has found takers in New York, Houston, New Haven, and elsewhere, and is working to build the supply as well.

After making the sign of the cross, one of the fishermen grabbed his spear-gun and dove to the bottom. To prevent losing track of him in the sweeping current and stiff, white-capped chop, the boat put two snorkelers into the water. They had to swim into the current continuously to keep an eye on the diver’s bubbles. Meanwhile, one man maneuvered the boat to keep the snorkelers in view.In Puerto Morelos, on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, I accompanied Dave and several men from the local fishing cooperativa. The fishermen’s boats are small and open, and their scuba gear basic and worn. But they used GPS to guide them with space-age precision to a seafloor ledge they know, in over a hundred feet of water, where lionfish find shelter out of the strong currents.

Lionfish provide a new source of income on the depleted reefs of the Caribbean.

In about 30 minutes, the diver surfaced with a dozen lionfish worth about $20. Even with three or four divers taking turns, they aren’t going to get rich this way. The diving is also dangerous. The fishermen routinely ignore the need for decompression. Many have trouble with the bends that can eventually disable them (our diver surfaced while our dive computer said he needed to spend 25 more minutes at a depth of 15 feet to safely purge his blood of nitrogen). And then there are those venomous spines. Every one of the spear fishermen in our party has been poked at one time or another, and taking an excruciating sting while a hundred feet from the surface must indeed be torment.

So far, this time-consuming and labor intensive scuba diving and spearing is the only way to target lionfish. Their lifestyle makes them hard to catch on a hook, or by nets either trawled or still-set. It’s hard to imagine a lure that could interest them; they like live prey but stalk it almost imperceptibly slowly, mimicking a clump of seaweed, then inhale it with a lightening gulp. And rather than cruising the reefs, they tend to hole up for the day in small groups inside caves and under overhangs, or inside wrecks. Anyway, they often live below safe diving depths, down to several hundred feet. They do, however occasionally get caught in lobster traps. Designing a better mousetrap that can catch quantities of lionfish, even in deep water, would be the needed breakthrough.

David Johnson is helping Caribbean fishermen connect their lionfish landings with US restaurants.

Johnson took me to another cooperative, in Cozumel, which was packing lionfish for export. And later that day we brought a few lionfish to a beachfront restaurant called Zenzi in Playa Del Carmen. There, a slightly skeptical chef named Renato Luis poked and prodded this new kind of fish that he’d heard about but never before confronted. Mr. Luis knew that cooking entirely neutralizes the spines’ venom; the flesh itself is never poisonous (though lionfish flesh, like many other predatory reef fish including snappers and groupers, can at certain times and places carry ciguatera toxin. But he couldn’t quite decide how to start cutting them, and I was afraid he’d poke himself while turning the fish this way and that; dead fish can still sting. Luckily, all went well and he eventually Mr. Luis determined a three-pronged strategy. He created several formed mounds of exquisite ceviche along with onions and cilantro; he pan sautéed several fillets with garlic and served them with mashed potatoes; and he made a magnificent platter presentation of two whole deep-fried fish, their long venomous spines spread like a wildly self-contradicting combination of Buddhist prayer flags and Sioux war bonnets.

Having turned the strange but exquisitely beautiful fish into delicious art, with a flourish, he set his creations on an outdoor table on the beach and invited diners to come sample them. No one seemed too interested in the fact that people had accidentally let this Indo-Pacific fish into the Caribbean, or that it is seriously competing with native fish for space on the reefs. Interest seemed confined solely to checking out how they taste. And on that, there was unanimity—they’re not just good; they’re really delicious.

Chef Renato Luis prepared the lionfish in three different, and delicious, ways for diners to sample. 


Carl Safina is founder of Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University, a MacArthur Fellow, and winner of a James Beard Award for his seafood writing. His books include, “A Sea In Flames; The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout,” and “The View From Lazy Point; A Natural Year in an Unnatural World,” which won the 2012 Orion Award. His series “Saving the Ocean” will be premiering this fall on PBS Television.

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