Eat Fish, Save Our Ocean? Lionfish as Sustainable Seafood

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It sounds a bit counterintuitive to eat as much of a species as possible, doesn't it? But as I was reminded at the recent Sustainable Seafood program organized by the Smithsonian Resident Associates, sustainability is all about balance. And although many of our ocean's tastiest species are being harvested to the brink of endangerment (or, in the case of bluefin tuna, imminent extinction), sometimes the scales tip in the opposite direction. Occasionally, the fish are the bad guys.

Enter the lionfish, stage left. This native of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans showed up in the Atlantic and Caribbean a decade or two ago, probably an escapee from a tropical aquarium. It's a prickly character, not the type that usually inspires dinner invitations, but sustainability-sensitive chefs like Barton Seaver want to introduce lionfish to the American table.

"This is an invasive species with no natural predator, so let's turn the most efficient predator of all on it—humans," says Seaver. "I mean, if Red Lobster would have a lionfish festival, it would be approximately three months before the problem is gone."

The problem, you see, is that lionfish don't play well with others. They eat many of their marine neighbors, hog the food supply, and scare off snorkeling tourists with their venomous spines. It's a particular problem in coral reef ecosystems, where the introduction of a single lionfish can kill off as much as 80 percent of small or juvenile native species within weeks. That's bad news for biodiversity, but it's also bad news for human seafood eaters.

As Anika Gupta explained in a Smithsonian article last year:

In the Western Atlantic, samples of lionfish stomach contents show that they consume more than 50 different species, including shrimp and juvenile grouper and parrotfish, species that humans also enjoy. A lionfish's stomach can expand up to 30 times its normal size after a meal. Their appetite is what makes lionfish such frightening invaders... Lab studies have shown that many native fish would rather starve than attack a lionfish.

Since other methods of controlling or eradicating invasive lionfish populations have largely failed, scientists and U.S. fisheries experts are launching an "Eat Lionfish" campaign, and it's begun to attract interest from chefs in cities like New York and Chicago.

At the recent Smithsonian event, Seaver served up a tasty lionfish ceviche accented with almonds and endive. He compared the fish's flavor and firm texture to something "between snapper and grouper," which happen to be two of the species threatened by lionfish invasions.

You probably won't find lionfish at your local fish market, says Seaver, but keep asking for it to create a demand. (His supply was donated by the group Sea 2 Table.) And if you do come across a source, check out these recipes on Lionfish Hunter's site.

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