Pan-Fried Conservation: How to eat our way to healthy reefs

Most of the time, marine conservation entails convincing people not to eat the over-exploited seafoods they love. We tell people to stop eating the fried grouper sandwiches, spicy tuna rolls and shark-fin soup that they crave. Well, we don't have to avoid seafood altogether to help marine life - in fact, we should be eating more of it - so long as we eat the right species.

There is a fish you can crave guilt-free and eat to your heart's content because eating more of it will actually help Caribbean reefs. No, I'm not kidding. What is the most ecologically responsible fish choice you can make?

Looks tasty, doesn't he?

You probably have heard of lionfish before. They're very popular in aquariums because of their ornate fins which warn potential predators of their painful venom. Lionfish are also known as Turkey Fish, Dragon Fish, Scorpion Fish or Fire Fish. The term "lionfish" actually applies to any of the species in the genera Pterois, Parapterois, Brachypterois, Ebosia or Dendrochirus, which are in the subfamily Pteroinae of the family Scorpaenidae.

Like the fierce cats they're named for, lionfish are voracious predators able to eat anything up to two-thirds their size. But now, their endless appetites threaten the natural ecosystems that attract thousands of tourists every year. This invasive predator has spread like a plague of locusts in the Caribbean and along the south eastern US coast, eating everything in their path since their introduction sometime in the 1990s, most likely from aquarium releases.

"They're like cockroaches," explains Bobbie Lindsay, a member of the Palm Beach Shore Protection Board who is one of the most vocal non-scientist voices about the invasion. "Bahamians know of reefs where there are 70 to 100 on a single rock," she explains. "That's beyond infestation!"

While it might seem exciting to divers to see this new, intriguing fish in their local waters, there's considerable downside to their sudden arrival. Research has found that lionfish feeding activities can decrease native fish recruitment by an average of 79% in the Caribbean, a number which might even be on the low end of the damage they do.

"They're eating everything," said Lisa A. Mitchell, executive director of Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), a nonprofit group that is helping both spread the word and get divers involved in dealing with this devastating invasion. "They could wipe out entire reefs."

Mark Hixon
, a biologist from Oregon State University, is one of the scientists tackling the invasion problem. For the past few years he and his graduate students have been watching the infestation grow, studying the ecological impacts of the lionfish.

"Native fish just don't know what hit them," explains Mark Hixon. "The small fish [in the Caribbean and Atlantic] don't do anything. They take no evasive action."

Lionfish have been sighted as far south as Venezuela and as far north as Rhode Island, and they've even been sighted this year in the marine sanctuary off the Florida Keys, the last remaining safe place for many of the Caribbean's most valuable and threatened species.

This lionfish invasion is an ecological distaster. We need a plan of action to manage this invasive species, a plan which will stop the spread of these quick-breeding sea-vermin and help protect the native populations from the advancing threat.

We need to eat them.

With how quickly lionfish breed, substantial predatory pressure is the only thing that will keep them from continuing to devastate Atlantic reefs. Unfortunately, we've completely decimated the top predator populations in that area, and those few that remain are showing no interest in stepping up to the plate. So, it's our turn to play the role we're all too good at. We have to be the top predator, and overfish this invasive predator into local extinction. Creating a strong fishery is the best management plan we have available, and is likely the last hope for many of the threatened Caribbean species.

But the real question is: how do they taste?

"Just like chicken," claimed Mark Hixon, when I asked him. "I don't know about chicken," laughed Bobbie Lindsay when I told her what he said, "but they're very good. Like rockfish, if you've ever had that."

It turns out lionfish are quite a delicacy (and have been one in Asia for a long time). You just have to get past the venomous spines, which isn't nearly as hard to do as you would think. Lionfish are venomous, not poisonous like blowfish, which means their toxins only affect you when injected into your skin. The toxic compounds, which are mostly proteins, are extremely sensitive to heat, so even if you did end up getting a little venom on your filet (which shouldn't happen anyhow because the venom is only in those long spines that aren't exactly appetizing), it would completely denature when cooked, rendering it harmless. In fact, heat is the recommended treatment for a lionfish sting because the venom is so sensitive to temperature that simply sticking your hand it hot water can destroy it.

Dive organizations are already getting in on the fishing action. This past summer, Lindsay helped organize the first annual "Lionfish Smash." The event's goal was to educate the public and spearfishermen about the invasion while catching as many lionfish as they could to serve up to locals. In North Carolina, Discovery Diving regularly goes out on lionfish round-ups (with help from enthusiastic divers like the one on the right). The caught fish are used both for ongoing research by scientists and organizations like NOAA and as tasty treats for the hard-working divers. They've even shipped off boxes of frozen fish to interested restaurant owners and chefs hoping to help boost the demand for lionfish meat.

Lionfish can be seared, fried, blackened, buttered, baked, stuffed, and even eaten raw, but until now the demand for their tasty flesh has been almost non-existent - that needs to change.

We need a call to arms - or, as one might say, to whet the appetites - of divers, tourists and conservationists who love the Caribbean, and get the word out about this tasty way that we can save our reefs.

If you live on the southern Atlantic coast or in the Caribbean and love to dive, volunteer to help out with REEF surveys or with dive groups like Discovery Divers that are going out and catching fish. NOAA and the other researchers are always looking for helping hands! Even if you don't live on the southeastern coast, tell others about the invasion and point them towards the organizations fighting it, like REEF and NOAA. Supporting lionfish research and helping spread information are the best things we can do (other than eat them) to help with the infestation.

No matter where you are in the US, you can talk to your local restaurants and tell them you want lionfish on the menu. It'll be worth their efforts - just ask Paolo di Chiara, owner and chef of Dolce Vita's World Cuisine in Eleuthera, Bahamas. He noticed that lionfish looked very similar to Scarfano, a kind of scorpion fish that is a delicacy in Italy. Now, his life partner Manon Tousignant dives every to catch the fresh fish that Chiara serves up in a variety of dishes, including a soup-like dish called Zupra di Pesce. "They're the most delicious fish in the Atlantic," says Chiara. Chefs and owners can contact Debby at Discovery Diving ( to obtain fish, or ask local dive organizations about them.

Just think - if we all start asking for lionfish, and restaurants start serving them, we can eat seafood to our heart's content and be improving the ocean instead of overfishing it. While some other seafood options aren't terrible (if you want to know which ones, check out your local Seafood Guides from the Monterrey Bay Aquarium), none of them are as ecologically responsible as lionfish! Who'd have thought that you can promote conservation and eat fish, too?

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Very informative! Unfortunately, I doubt there are enough interested Ohioans for restaurants here to put these invaders on the menu... but one can always try.