The invasive lionfish: a delicious creature that deserves to die.

What to eat. What not to eat.
March 16 2011 7:31 AM

The Lionfish Is Delicious

And it needs to die.

Pterois volitans. Click image to expand.
The red lionfish, an invasive species

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 8:15 AM Ted Cruz Will Not Join a Protest of "The Death of Klinghoffer" After All
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 8:27 AM Only Science Fiction Can Save Us! What sci-fi gets wrong about income inequality.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 7:30 AM Ring Around the Rainbow
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.