The Ultimate Sustainable Seafood?

At Miya's Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut, Chef Bun Lai serves European flat oysters with Sichuan pepper, lime, soy, and daikon relish; grilled moon snails; batter-fried Asian shore crabs; and raw slices of lionfish with sake-soy sauce, roasted seaweed flakes, toasted sesame seeds, and chives. It might be the only menu of its kind in the country: He calls it the Long Island Sound Invasive Species Menu.

Lai started his Invasive Species Menu five years ago and has been serving lionfish for the last two years. The population of the fish in its nonnative habitat has grown exponentially. Some of the locations it has invaded in the wild now have up to 200 lionfish per acre. It eats 56 different types of fish, threatening reef ecosystems and the recovery of snapper and grouper stocks in the Atlantic.

As familiar seafood like tuna and salmon is fished to near extinction, some people are evangelizing eating invasive species of fish—specifically, lionfish and Asian carp—as an alternative. These species are plentiful, tasty, and a menace to other fish populations. What could be more environmentally responsible?

lionfish

The lionfish's spines need to be removed before filleting it. (Courtesy of NOAA)

SPINY, VENOMOUS, AND DELICIOUS
An invasive species is defined as a species of animal (or plant) that is not native to an area and causes harm to the environment, economy, or human health, says Chris Dionigi, the assistant director for national policy and programs for the National Invasive Species Council (NISC). Lionfish are the spiny striped fish native to the Indo-Pacific that you usually see in tropical aquariums—the kind that PETCO warns "will eat any tankmate that can fit in its mouth." And it's the aquarium trade that is thought to be responsible for the fish's accidental escape into the Atlantic, where it now ranges from North Carolina to South America.

But can you really eradicate an invasive species by eating it? Renata Lana, a communications specialist at NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, thinks it's a worthwhile cause: She has been working on an "Eat Lionfish" campaign to educate the public about putting the fish on the table. She is contacting people like Jessica Zabel at the seafood market Cod & Capers in Florida, and trying to support their grass-roots efforts to build a market for the fish. It's no easy task. "We have to create supply and demand at once," says Zabel, who has put posters in the shop saying they will buy any lionfish brought in by lobster divers. But so far, she hasn't received any—even though the divers report seeing plenty and spearing them. They just don't want to handle them.

A lionfish fillet ready for the pan (courtesy of NOAA)

You see, this catch has a big catch. The lionfish has 18 venomous spines, scaring off fishermen, chefs, and home cooks alike. "Most [fishermen] don't keep them because they take the risk of being stuck by one," says Wayne Mershon, owner of Kenyon Seafood in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. Mershon does work with a few guys who will bring the fish to shore when it's by-catch with grouper and snapper. Those lionfish are earmarked for Chef James Clark at the Marina Inn at Grande Dunes in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

"I serve it as often as I can get my hands on it," says Clark. "It really is an excellent eating fish. I'd put it up against any firm, white, mild-flavored fish. It has a cucumber-y, sweet shrimp flavor." Clark gets the lionfish in whole, fillets them himself, and says they yield as much usable meat as grouper. And he's never been stung. Lionfish is so good, he says, that he told Mershon he doesn't care if it's "one or two-three hundred, I'll buy every single one of them."

James A. Morris Jr., an ecologist at the Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research, National Ocean Service, NOAA, says that he doesn't think it's possible to eradicate the lionfish exclusively by eating it, but that the strategy could help in protected areas that are easily accessible by divers, like the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Still, he says, "Any increase in fishing effort would be good. It's actually a good thing to fish this down so you can't find it anymore."