Growing up in the Florida Keys, I never felt like nature’s top predator. If anything, I was the hunted: Supposedly defenseless Florida lobsters scratched at me with their spiky antennae, scorpions ambushed me, sea urchins lodged their spines in the soft meat between my toes. I wasn’t much more comfortable on offense, either. My rare moments of luck at catching snapper or grouper were always tinged with a sort of environmental angst. Why take another fish out of the fragile ocean when the fried chicken at Dion’s QuikMart—another noted Keys delicacy—seemed so much more sustainable?
Two decades later, in the era of coral bleaching and overfishing, eating seafood is no less fraught. But on a recent trip back home for the holidays, the talk in the Keys was all about a fish you can serve without a side order of guilt, a creature that is such a bastard it will make you discard your ethical reservations and gladly assert your place at the pinnacle of the food chain. Coming to a table near you, if local environmentalists have their way:the invasive redlionfish.
Bastard is perhaps a strong word.In its native waters of the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, the lionfish lives in a benign balance with the rest of the food chain. But in the Atlantic and Caribbean, where it has been proliferating madly since the early 1990s, the lionfish has no controllingpredators. Not even goliath groupers or sharkshave developed a taste for them.A lionfish can begin reproducing in the first year of its life and can spawnmore than 2 million eggs a year. From birth, the lionfish eats ravenously, its diet made up of the juveniles of key species that help maintain and promote the equilibrium of the reef—snapper, hogfish, parrotfish, banded coralshrimp. In less than 20 years, the lionfish has established a breathtaking colonial empire that ranges all the way from North Carolina to Brazil. In the last two years in particular, it has become a constant menace in Florida Keys reefs. Comprehensive counts are hard to come by, but one local lobsterman reported to the Keynoter thathe found more than 100 of them in his traps in a single week. Based on their explosive reproductive rate, researchers estimate that one-quarter of the fish would have to be killed each month to slow their growth.
Lionfish supposedly first arrived in local waters when an aquarium broke during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and dumped a half-dozen of them into Biscayne Bay. That origin story may be apocryphal, but in a state where escaped pet Burmese pythons may soon outnumber retirees, I’m inclined to believe it. The lionfish, with its calico stripes and gaudy array of fins that fan out like a mane, is prized by aquarists everywhere, but it seems a particularly perfect accessory for hit men and coke dealers, to name two demographics known to own condos on the water in Miami.
However the lionfish arrived, their presence is putting additional pressure on an ecosystem already fighting for survival.There are plenty of ways to quantify just how seriously the Florida Keys have been overfished, but perhaps my favorite is the 2009 study in Conservation Biology which analyzed old trophy-fish photographs (the kind that Hemingway posed for in Key West). The researcher found that the size of the largest prize fish had decreased by more than half in the last 60 years; average fish weight was down 88 percent.
With concerns about ecological invaders at a fever pitch, humans should at least contemplate a gastronomic counteroffensive. Especially since, by reputation, lionfish is not only a poisonous reef killer; it’s also delicious. That’s the message of the pro-environment, pro-palate Lionfish Cookbook : The Caribbean ‘ s New Delicacy, published in December by the marine conservation nonprofitReef Environmental Education Foundation. A collection of dozens of recipes ranging from baked Thai lionfish to beer-battered lionfish, the book makes the case that lionfish can be cooked like buttery reef fish like grouper and snapper—and that it’s just as delicious. Also helpful: sections on how to catch and clean the fish that are even more detailed and precise than the Joy of Cooking’s chapter on skinning squirrels.
As with squirrels, I suppose, you can’t just buy lionfish at a supermarket. Not yet, anyhow. To get my fish, I had to wait for a phone call from the cookbook’s coauthor, Lad Akins, the co-founder of REEF, who was trying to find lobstermen who had caught them in their traps. After a few days, the call came, and I drove toa parking lot on Conch Key, 60 miles north of Key West.
The transaction felt more like a drug deal than a trip to the market. Akins, a square-jawed professional diver who is described in the book as having “eaten more invasive lionfish … than any other person working on the invasion,” drove up in a pickup truck and dug barehanded through a cooler looking for suitable fish. His brazenness made me rather jumpy: his own cookbook cautions never to handle the fish—at least not until the venom has been cooked out of its spines—without the “confidence and safety” of puncture-proof rubber gloves. Fugu: The neurotoxins aren’t in the meat or organs at all but located solely in the 13 dorsal spines, three pelvic spines, and three anal spines. Akins says most stings only result in pain and swelling. But neurotoxins can affect different people in widely varying ways. I spoke about more extreme effects with my sister-in-law’s uncle Jimmy Phillips, who was stung in his Pembroke Pines, Fla., apartment more than a decade ago and still remembers it vividly. Phillips describes three stages of anguish he went through after a lionfish spine caught him just under the nail of his middle finger. First came the pain, like being smashed with a hammer for hours. A deep fever followed that left him delirious and half-naked, lying on his glasstop coffee table just to cool his skin. The final stage lasted weeks, as the tissue on the tip of his finger turned black and sloughed off; it took months for Phillips’ finger to heal fully. A lionfish, he says, “can really light you up.”> Next he moved two lionfish from his cooler to mine and, after a brief exchange of pleasantries, he drove off. The dead lionfish were smaller than I expected. With their fins laying against their bodies, they looked like any other eight-inch reef fish, not a fearsome predator. Inspired by Akins, I prepared the fish barehanded after getting back to Key West. The first step was easy enough: cut the tips off all the spines with a pair of scissors. Even blunted, though, the spines were menacing. Gutting and cleaning a fish is a slippery business, so I took my time, but before long, I was looking at several smallish fillets ready for cooking. To test the as-good-as-snapper hypothesis, I turned the fillets over to my mother, a snapper savant, and had her prepare the fish the way she does fresh snapper—dredged in flour with a bit of cayenne, salt and pepper; sautéed in olive oil and butter; and served with lemon.
While she was occupied, I turned to a little arts-and-crafts project. Somehow it didn’t seem like enough to just eat the fish. The beauty of invasiovorism—eating pesky non-natives—is that it’s not just a solution, it’s a revenge fantasy. I was doing this for me, sure, but also for all those dead baby groupers. Fortunately, Akins’ cookbook suggests a deliciously vengeful presentation. Simply snip the dorsal spines off at the base and bake them—15 minutes at 350 degrees is enough to denature the venom. Then use those as orange-and-black striped toothpicks for skewering bites of the fish. Dramatic, yes, and it sends a clear message to the lionfish community: We will kill you and eat you with your own spines.
Lunch was ready. Itturns out that it’s true: Lionfish can stand with the noblest of the reef fish. It has a half-mild white meat, neither briny nor bloody. Like the best Keys seafood, there’s a light sashimi sweetness to it, even when cooked. Ultimately, I found it reminded me most of hogfish, which is to say, it’s tasty enough to be simply sautéed but probably strong enough to be battered, blackened, or curried, as the cookbook also suggests. My kids came bounding in and, disobeying a direct order from my wife, I fed them morsels from the baked spines. They ate the entire fish that way in under two minutes. Importantly, they survived.
Akins and his fellow environmentalists face big challenges before they can create a mass-market for the fish. Size matters: you’re not going to get big, grouper-esque fillets out of a lionfish. And you can’t really fish for them with bait and tackle. They need to be netted or shot with a speargun, meaning that if you want a lionfish, you have to jump in the ocean and get it yourself.
The next time I’m home in the Keys,though, I might just do that. The lionfish is delicious, and it needs to die.