Eating An Invader: Lionfish
In the wild, lionfish are greedy predators that have invaded the Caribbean and eastern US seacoast. They gobble up native fish and damage ecosystems, and can mean the end of local economies based on snorkeling and diving tourism dollars.
But there’s hope. Apparently lionfish taste great, and efforts are being made to develop a market in which humans can eat lionfish into local extinction in the areas it doesn’t belong.
Sea to Table is a New York based organization which seeks out locally and sustainably managed fisheries needing better access to direct markets and provides a direct connection between fishermen and chefs. In a recent interview, Sean Dimin of Sea to Table told me about the high level of interest that was shown when lionfish was made available in several restaurants in the test markets of New York and Chicago. “With a few boxes and plenty of conversations around the country, we feel there is a large enough market to tackle this problem,” Dimin commented.
That lionfish tastes delicious is a large success factor. Although it could be sold through a conservation story, people would only go so far in supporting the effort if the taste wasn’t there. But the lionfish feeds on small crustaceans and fish, and has a similar taste to snapper. The delicate, snow white flesh has an almost sweet flavor.
Now that the market has been found, Sea to Table is working on creating a reliable supply. The challenge is that conventional harvesting methods, such as hooks and lines, don’t work. Lionfish are top predators, not scavengers which might feed on already dead animals such as bait in a fish trap. Sea to Table has been working with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) off the coast of North Carolina, as well as with a number of dive outfits, to try to find a solution. One method that works is using live bait. When live bait fish are put into a 2 litre soda bottle and then placed into a fish trap, the lionfish think it’s a school of small fish and enter the trap, becoming trapped themselves. The live bait can be used again and again, unlike dead bait.
Dimin also mentioned “the largest of the fish processors in the Bahamas are working to develop traps and are also working on putting bounties out there for spear fishermen to go and harvest” as many lionfish as possible. Bounties were used previously but became too expensive to maintain when the number of lionfish exceeded the budget. But bounties become affordable when paid by a fish processing plant that sells the fish. “It’s a commercialization of directed overfishing”, suggests Dimin.
So if a reliable supply can be obtained, human appetites for healthy and delicious foods might just eat this menacing species out of existence in the areas it causes harm. It looks like this invasive species story is heading towards a deliciously happy ending.