Lionfish: Eating Our Way Out of a Problem

Lionfish are not good aquarium-mates.

There’s been a lot of media coverage this past year about the invasive lionfish and how it can make a tasty dish, but I was left wondering about those pesky venomous spines. The fish didn’t seem terribly large, either.  So, I wanted to find out whether lionfish is worth the trouble to eat.

I was actually inspired by another WLRN Miami Herald News  story about the lionfish.  In July 2011, Marina Giovannelli reported on how the lionfish is taking over our South Florida waters.

It’s a spiny, venomous fish originally from the waters of the Indo-Pacific.  They were probably dumped into our waters by aquarium owners who got sick of the lionfish’s habit of eating all of the other fish in the aquarium.

Marina learned that the lionfish is eating its way through fish nurseries in the Loxahatchee River in Palm Beach.  It can eat dozens of young grouper and red snapper in one day—both very important to South Florida’s economy and environment.  Marina concluded her story with the suggestion that we curb the lionfish population by “cooking up a tasty lionfish taco.”  And that triggered my curiosity–I just had to try it for myself…

The lionfish has no natural predators.  So in addition to being a voracious eater, nothing eats the lionfish.  (Although, I hear that fishermen in Roatan are trying to teach sharks to eat them.) Divers in the Keys report seeing larger lionfish and more of them in recent months.

That’s where Lad Akins comes in.  He’s the Director of Special Projects at REEF in the Keys and the co-author of the Lionfish Cookbook.  Akins got me into the kitchen at the Fish House Encore in Key Largo where I got my first taste of lionfish.  The Fish House serves lionfish whenever they have it available.

Executive Chef Peter Tsilikis made it three ways: fried, sautéed in sherry and butter, and en papillote (in a pouch.)  My favorite preparation was the sauté—you just can’t go wrong with sherry and butter.

Fried lionfish and lionfish sauteed in sherry and butter (background) are served at the Fish House Encore in Key Largo.

The fried fish is sometimes presented in this exotic/scary (depending on your opinion) display, but you only eat the fried filets on either side.  As you can see, the spines are still attached to the fried fish–heating them above 350 degrees neutralizes the venom.

My verdict after my first tasting is that it’s a fish worth the trouble.  It’s light, delicate and versatile. You know people who complain about their fish being “too fishy?”  This is the fish for them.  I tasted hogfish (a delicacy for folks in the Keys) for the first time the weekend before I tasted the lionfish and I can see why people compare the taste of the two fish.  Akins says these three were small to average size.

The doorman at the Fish House in Key Largo

Michelle Bernstein, who I also talked to for the radio story, agreed wholeheartedly, as you can hear in her effusive reaction in the  piece.

I asked her about her experience cooking lionfish for the first time on Good Morning America.   In the segment, she exclaims, “Oh my goodness gracious!” when Matt Gutman walks into Sra. Martinez with a live lionfish in a bucket: “It was kind of like oh my goodness gracious actually.  First of all, I was told that I was getting a filet of lionfish.  I have no problem with filleting fish.  I used to actually be a fish butcher.  However, no one ever taught me the best way to go about filleting a lionfish and it was alive when I got it.  I need my hands more than anything as a chef, so if I had been stung, I would lose the use of my hands for a little while.”

Bernstein shocked the fish in ice so it wouldn’t move.  Then, she wrapped it in a towel and handled the fish carefully, eventually cutting off the spines.  “After that, it was like preparing any other fish.” Bernstein says she would definitely add lionfish to the menu if there was a steady supply, as well as someone to prepare the lionfish for the commercial kitchen.

The spines of the lionfish make for tricky fishing and preparation, but once you know what to do, it’s just common sense.  However, as Bernstein pointed out, in a commercial kitchen, people are working at lightning speed.  It’s not practical for chefs to slow down enough to be able to process so many lionfish in a safe way.

Lionfish en papillote at The Fish House Encore

After this story aired last Friday, I got a tweet from Michael’s Genuine about how they’d be serving lionfish crudo that night.  The restaurant has been doing some “lionfish safari” and dinner events at their Cayman Islands branch, so we may have another place to taste lionfish.

While paging through the Lionfish Cookbook, I learned that lionfish aren’t just a problem in South Florida.  They’re in the Gulf, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic coast of the United States all the way up to North Carolina.  They have also been spotted in waters off New England. Lad Akins and some other folks I talked to are optimistic about curbing the lionfish population by making them a desirable meal, but they agree that eradicating this lionfish this way is probably unrealistic.

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  1. August 23, 2011 Quick Hits - August 23, 2011

    […] ? The lionfish, a non-native invasive species doing significant damage in the Atlantic, is the target of a concerted effort to catch, cook, slice, fry, and/or serve these predators into oblivion (or at least back into a more manageable population size).  Michael’s Genuine is doing its part, featuring a lionfish crudo as a special last Friday.  Word on the street is that Sra. Martinez is also serving lionfish, and last weekend a lionfish derby was held in Key Largo while The Fish House served up fried lionfish (the toxic spikes are rendered harmless when cooked to a certain temperature).  Check out’s post on the lionfish problem here. […]

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