It's believed that lionfish, a popular Indo-Pacific aquarium fish, was first released in Florida (Atlantic) waters during the 1980s. Now lionfish prey voraciously on invertebrates and over 70 species of domestic fish. These toothy coral reef fish, part of the scorpion fish family, have no natural reef predators except spearfishing humans.
A consumption revolution, however, referred to by some as "lionfish karma," is ensuring that the voracious eaters are being eaten.
Delicious and delicate, the light white meat of the lionfish tastes much like snapper. Its predator-deterrent venomous spines are removed before cooking, and the meat is perfectly safe — and delicious — to eat.
Divers and nondivers can make a real impact by ordering the fish at Florida Keys restaurants as a cook-your-catch item or off the menu, helping to decrease lionfish populations and minimize their impacts. Whole Foods grocery stores also sell the fish, whole or filleted, at their seafood counters.
Fish House Encore Restaurant & Sushi Bar in Key Largo was the first restaurant in the Florida Keys to begin serving lionfish, although it is considered a special-request item and is not listed on the regular menu.
At Castaway Waterfront Restaurant and Sushi Bar in Marathon, the owner himself dives for the lionfish he serves, making it a staple on the menu. Ask for it "wrecker" style, in a yummy sauce of capers, garlic, butter and diced tomato, as a sashimi (sliced fish) or nigiri sushi roll, or as a ceviche appetizer.
At Islamorada's Marker 88 Waterfront Restaurant, owner/chef Robert Stoky, also an avid lionfish diver, developed a recipe for Butter Baked Lionfish that is simple to prepare for the grill. Chefs simply line aluminum foil with carrot sticks, onion, zucchini, yellow squash, butter, salt and pepper, place lionfish fillets on top and grill over high heat.
"It is a beautiful white meat," Stoky said. "It is a great simple-tasting fish, and what I mean by that is it does not have a fishy flavor at all."
Other popular preparation methods include bacon-wrapping and barbecuing lionfish, poaching it or making it Bermuda style — the fillets encrusted with fried red onions and Japanese breadcrumbs, baked and served with a sweet-and-sour sauce atop baby arugula salad.
Key Largo-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation, widely recognized as a leading authority in lionfish research, removal practices and educational outreach, has adopted an "eat them to beat them" mantra. The Keys' commercial fishing and restaurant communities too are onboard.
"Removing lionfish from local reefs is like weeding a garden: remove weeds and the garden is healthier; remove lionfish and the reefs are healthier," said Lad Akins, REEF's founder. "The key is regular removals, year-round."
For more information on catching, cleaning and cooking lionfish, read REEF's published "Lionfish Cookbook" or visit REEF.org/lionfish.
Lionfish are beautiful, yet voracious predators in Atlantic waters. Image: Rich Carey
Venomous (not poisonous) spines are removed before preparation.
Castaway Waterfront Restaurant and Sushi Bar in Marathon serves lionfish as a regular menu item, including as a popular sushi roll.
REEF developed a cookbook filled with innovative, simple recipes to prepare lionfish, and other species of edible fish.