After trying desperately to eliminate the lionfish, a venomous predator that ravages local reefs and devours other sea creatures, experts think they have a solution: Serve the darn thing for dinner with some lemon and tartar sauce.
"It's deadly, but it's one of most delicious fish you'll ever eat," said David Link, manager of the Food Shack in Jupiter, one of nine Florida restaurants already serving lionfish, most on a limited basis.
Many restaurants would like to make lionfish a regular menu item but have been able to find a steady supply. Because the pretty but prickly fish prefers to lurk near the bottom, avoiding nets, it's tricky to catch.
Usually, they're caught when they roam into lobster traps or when divers spear them, making them an unsavory proposition for commercial fishing operations.
Just the same, if enough restaurants express a craving for lionfish, fishermen would be enticed to catch more of them, potentially decreasing their numbers, said Lad Akins, director of special projects for REEF, a non-profit marine conservation group based in Key Largo.
"We certainly want to see lionfish in more restaurants because as it goes into the market place, it creates a demand," he said. "Anything that removes them out of the water is a good thing."
As it stands, the lionfish -- able to produce 30,000 eggs in a shot -- is proliferating so quickly that it is jeopardizing the populations of other fish, such as snapper, and scouring local reefs, said Tony Fins, spokesman for the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, a marine conservation agency.
"Lionfish are the biggest threat to ecosystem, not only in Florida, but also the Caribbean," he said. "We all know this is a problem, so let's speed up the process."
Steve Gittings, science program manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Sanctuary Program, said stemming the invasion of lionfish, which are non-native to Florida, poses a major challenge.
"Without any known predators, and apparently no significant diseases or parasitic controls in Atlantic ecosystems, their numbers continue to skyrocket," he said.
To make lionfish easier to catch, the Guy Harvey Research Institute, based in Dania Beach, would like to see "reachable habitats" established. One way to do that is to make sure artificial reefs, such as old boats, are not sunk in water any deeper than 100 feet, Fins said.
"Under 100 feet, divers can spear the fish," he said. "The number of people who can dive lower than 100 feet is radically smaller."
Further ramping up the campaign to see lionfish grilled, blackened or sauteed: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will hold its annual Lionfish Summit Oct. 22-24 in Cocoa Beach. Akins, a keynote speaker, said he will stress that lionfish need to be made available to more restaurants.
"There are number of restaurants that want as much as they can take," he said.
For those seafood lovers who fear they might consume venom should the lionfish end up on their plates, Akins said not to worry. When the fish is filleted, its meat is separated from where the venom is stored in its spine. Further, once the fish is cooked, any venom would be rendered harmless.
The lionfish uses its 18 venomous spines as a defense mechanism to fend off other predators, Akins said. If a human is poked by one of the spines, it would be painful and cause swelling -- but it wouldn't be fatal, he added.
Because the lionfish "is such a good eating fish, light and delicate," his organization has published "The Lionfish Cookbook." Now in its second printing, it includes 45 recipes. He added that the lionfish contains a low amount of omega fat, making it one of the healthiest fish as well.
Mano Calambichis, co-owner of Big Chef, a food supplier based in Davie, said he hopes fishermen find an efficient way to catch the lionfish because he's confident that restaurant patrons would gobble it down in large quantities.
"We better learn how to eat them, before they eat us," he said.
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