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.