Lionfish are taking over the warm waters off the coast of Florida and Texas. It started 30 years ago, when the first of these beautiful but venomous fish was spotted near Fort Lauderdale.
They are native to the Indian and western Pacific oceans, but they likely were released in U.S. waters when someone dumped a fish tank after realizing the lionfish were eating all the other fish in the tank.
Now, that scene is playing out from the Bahamas to South Padre — lionfish up to 18 inches long are slurping up any small fish that swims by. They have no natural predators here, so they are flourishing, to the detriment of other species.
Fitness and travel writer Pam LeBlanc is ready to do her part to help get rid of them. How? Eat ’em.
LeBlanc and her husband, Chris, first noticed lionfish on their dives about 10 or 12 years ago, but only a few here and here, he says. About four or five years ago, they went to the Bahamas, and they were everywhere.
“Every dive, you’d see 20 of them,” she says.
Chris, who is an avid underwater photographer, says, “I got tired of taking pictures of them.”
In recent years, Pam has seen lionfish rodeos in Belize and the Bahamas to get people to take them off the reef, and she’s noticed lionfish on the menus at the restaurants that cater to those divers, too. The LeBlancs had lionfish sushi at the now-closed Haven in Houston and at a restaurant in the Cayman Islands.
However, unless you live on the coast, it has been hard to find lionfish for sale, other than buying it frozen online.
But earlier this year, grocers including Whole Foods Market and Wegmans started selling lionfish fillets in an effort to create demand for a product with seemingly endless supply.
“The female can lay 30,000 eggs at a time, up to 2 million eggs per year,” says David Ventura, the seafood coordinator for Whole Foods’ Florida region. “They are an eating machine with no natural predators, and we have to get them out.”
Selling lionfish, instead of simply hunting them and throwing them away, provides an incentive for the spear divers who are trying to slow down the invasion.
Ventura says that they’ve already sold more than 10,000 pounds of the fish at Whole Foods’ stores in Florida this year, and as they expand distribution to stores, that number will grow quickly. Austin stores started selling it this summer.
To try our hand at cooking this grouper- or snapper-like fish, I headed to the LeBlanc house to prepare several pounds of fillets from Whole Foods. The fish costs about $13 per pound, with the trademark stripes on the skin to remind you that you are, in fact, getting ready to eat a tropical fish. The venomous barbs are removed during processing, and the flesh is perfectly edible even raw or lightly cooked in dishes like sushi or ceviche.
We decided to make fish tacos and ceviche with our fillets. Before we could get started, we had to remove the pin bones and that striped skin, two necessary if laborious steps when you’re working with more than 3 pounds of fish. I chopped the fish into cubes while Pam squeezed limes and cut up the onions, tomatoes and cilantro for the ceviche.
After we tossed those ingredients together to soak, we got to work on the fried fish. I seasoned a bowl of flour with salt and pepper and, in another bowl, whisked together an egg with a little water. (I would have used milk, but all Pam had on hand was a slightly sweetened almond milk, which I decided was better for her pre-workout smoothies than our post-work tacos.)
After a quick dip in the egg wash and flour, the fillets went into a large skillet, where they sizzled in hot canola oil for a few minutes on each side. Even before the tacos were ready, we tried some of the fried fish and were impressed with how mild the flavor was. Unlike tilapia or catfish, the lionfish was a completely blank canvas for the crust and the other ingredients that we eventually added to the tacos.
When we sat down to eat both the ceviche and the tacos, the lionfish shined a little more in the ceviche, but the tacos were also good, especially as we talked about just how devastating these fish can be on the reefs that have meant so much to the LeBlancs and to wannabe divers like me.
Coconut Curry Lionfish
Molly Siegler, a food editor with Whole Foods, says that the texture of the fish is so delicate that it’s easy to run over with heavy-handed cooking techniques and spices. She recommends a moist cooking technique, like a coconut curry, so that the fish can absorb the flavors but keep its silky texture.
1 Tbsp. coconut oil or canola oil
1 white onion, thinly sliced
1 1/2 Tbsp. Thai red curry paste, or to taste
1 cup light coconut milk
1 tsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. fine sea salt
1 1/4 lb. boneless, skinless lionfish fillet, cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
5 cups (about 3 oz.) baby spinach leaves
1 Tbsp. fish sauce
Juice of 1 lime
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves
Heat oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, about 6 minutes. Stir in curry paste and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in coconut milk, sugar and salt, stirring until curry is dissolved, and bring to a simmer. Add fish, cover the pan and simmer for 3 minutes. Carefully stir in spinach and fish sauce. Simmer until spinach is just wilted and fish is cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes more. Sprinkle with lime juice and cilantro and serve.
— Whole Foods Market
1 lb. lionfish, skin and pin bones removed
1/4 red onion, thinly sliced
1 small Roma tomato, cubed
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Juice of 4 limes
Drizzle of olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Tostadas or tortilla chips, for serving
Chop the fish into 1/2- to 3/4-inch cubes. Toss with the remaining ingredients in a medium bowl. Let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. Serve with tortilla chips.
— Addie Broyles
Where to buy
Lionfish is available at the Whole Foods Market downtown, and it soon will be in the other Austin stores. There have been some weeks the fish hasn’t been available, especially in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, but a Whole Foods spokeswoman says it should be more consistently in the seafood counter in coming weeks and months. The fish costs about $13 per pound.