Go looking for a lionfish to cook, and you’ll find that it is as commercially unavailable as snook – but for a different reason.
Snook are legally protected; you can’t buy or sell them, and the number you may possess is limited. You must catch them yourself, in season, or have a good friend who will share his catch.
Lionfish are protected by venomous spines. Commercial fishermen don’t catch them, and fish houses don’t stock them for sale. They are good to eat, but to acquire one you must be a diver who goes spearfishing for them, or such a diver’s good friend.
This is unfortunate, because lionfish are alien invaders from the Indo-Pacific region that threaten Atlantic and Caribbean reef ecosystems from Cape Hatteras to the South American coast. Fisheries biologists would love to get rid of them and are encouraging human predation, even though catching and eating them would scarcely put a dent in their burgeoning population.
Florida Sea Grant in Miami plans a lionfish roundup in the spring of 2012. Similar events are held in the Florida Keys. Watch the Florida Sea Grant Web site for details. Before such events, the captain of each entry group has to attend a class on catching, handling, and filleting lionfish.
Fueling the demand
I learned all this while trying to buy a lionfish. Several fresh fish wholesalers in Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys were unable to help me. The proprietor of one Keys fish house said he often gets requests for lionfish but cannot fulfill them.
Fueling the demand for lionfish as a food fish is the Lionfish Cookbook by Tricia Ferguson and Lad Adkins (2010, The Reef Environmental Education Foundation). The book is beautifully illustrated with David M. Stone’s photography. It includes instructions on how to collect, handle, and clean lionfish.
However, a call to The REEF Foundation in Key Largo left me confused and frustrated. Yes, the organization published the book, but spokespersons there couldn’t help me find the fish, or where it might be served. They suggested I call restaurants.
The lionfish is unappealing to the fishing industry because it can fight back. You catch a lionfish by spearing it, but the lionfish in turn can spear you.
“The lionfish has poison in its venomous dorsal, pelvic, and anal spine fins,” says Lisa Krimsky, Sea Grant Agent for Miami-Dade County. “Getting stuck by the spines is very painful.
“If you’re stuck,” she suggests, “place the injured area in the hottest water you can stand, because heat denatures the protein base of the venom. If you’re snorkeling or diving, get out of the water, collect hot water coming out of your boat engine on any available material, and cover the hurt area. Repeat this process.”
Anyone with a compromised immune system should be especially wary of catching or cleaning lionfish, because the effects of the venom can be far worse than for a healthy person.
If you’re unwise enough to have lionfish in your home aquarium, avoid touching them, and discourage children from trying to play with them. If you want to get rid of them, don’t just dump them in the bay. That only adds to the infestation.
How they got here
No one is sure how lionfish reached Atlantic and Caribbean waters. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 gets some of the blame for allegedly washing an aquarium into Biscayne Bay. Other explanations include riding around the world in ships’ ballast water and then being discharged, and being released deliberately by hobbyists who were raising them in aquariums and no longer wanted to keep them.
Fifteen species of lionfish exist. Species variation includes coloration, the number of spines, and scale differences. Over 90 percent of the invaders are Pterios volitans(the red lionfish). For a very detailed biological profile of this species, visit the Florida Museum of Natural History Web site. Most of the other invaders are P. miles (the common lionfish), which is a close relative of P. volitans.
Where to see lionfish safely
You’ll find lionfish at the Miami Seaquarium on Virginia Key.
In Sarasota, the Mote Marine Laboratory Aquarium on Siesta Key has lionfish on display.
Some pet shops also may have lionfish. Although they are a major nuisance, there is as yet no law against buying, selling, or keeping them in captivity.
Note: Click on the "Subscribe" button above to receive an email each time the Miami Food and Drink Examiner publishes a new article.