Lionfish: aquarium escapees gone wild?

I had maybe seen a lionfish in a home aquarium and not paid a lot of attention to it – I’m afraid that when I go to the big commercial sea zoos I have a tendency to focus on all the tasty creatures I’ve cooked over the years. The lionfish was a small exotic and poisonous to boot so I had little interest.

Depending on what story you believe these guys escaped into the wild on Florida’s east coast during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Due to their array of poisonous spines, other fish aren’t interested in eating them. So they They prospered and multiplied, and unfortunately for the rest of the reef fish, they are voracious feeders and their populations are now a real problem.

The upside – they’re delicious. Enter the ultimate predator – humans.

I was approached by John Perriccio, the president of Southbend equipment manufacturing to see if I’d be interested in cooking for a “lionfish rodeo” he was organizing in Delray Beach Fla. I had always wanted to learn scuba diving so I took the whirlwind three day course but unfortunately couldn’t get open water certified before the event. Probably a good thing because when I got there, I already had a couple of hundred small fish to butcher. Four hours later I gave up and started cooking an evening buffet for 100 divers. I invited the owner of Triar Seafood in Hollywood, Peter Jarvis, to come by and meet some possible suppliers and taste the fish. He told me there was a chef in Charleston who had asked for them.

The two day event produced 735 fish ranging in size from 4 to 18 inches with the average size being about 8 to 10. The divers clipped the top spines and after filleting a hundred or so I started scaling them for whole cooking. To me they taste a lot like another reef fish, hog snapper. They have a creamy colored dense white meat and lend themselves well to a variety of cooking methods.

So—lionfish are interesting, tasty, and eating them has a real positive impact on the reef environment. The problem will be getting them to market, mainly due to the harvesting method which is hand spearing one at a time.
Divers in my neck of the woods can go out and spear a limit of two cobia (20-40 pounds each) which they can sell to a wholesaler for 2.50-3.00 a pound and maybe make enough for gas and air, etc so it can make financial sense for all concerned. I get a fish 12 hours or less out of the water and everyone’s happy.

In the case of the lion fish, the amount of weight per fish is maybe an average of 10 ounces so a diver would have to be dedicated to get enough to make it economically feasible.(At this time no one has proposed a bounty, which would be a great way to subsidize this process.) The wholesaler has to get enough fish to make it worth his while to pick them up and then be able to airship it for an additional 2.00 or so a pound to me, and I have to be willing to take a lot of mixed size small fish and then have to menu them at a profit. So unless you live very close by the source, they aren’t going to be cheap.

I am planning another trip to Florida when I get open water certified next month and hope to personally spear a bunch of these guys.

—Tenney Flynn, executive chef, GW Fins, New Orleans

Posted by: Chefs Collaborative

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