Capt. Clay Brand poses in front of a mural at Capt. Clay & Sons Seafood Market in Delray Beach with a lionfish that he speared. He harvests a variety of seafood for his market, including lionfish. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Seafood markets hawk invasive lionfish to help control the impact on Florida’s native fish
By Willie Howard
Lionfish are so well established in Florida waters that scientists have conceded that the non-native fish with venomous spines are here to stay. The goal now is controlling their spread.
The invasive fish with maroon and white stripes — native to the South Pacific and Indian oceans — steals food from Florida’s native fish and eats their young.
Harvesting contests such as the Gold Coast Lionfish Derby held in June at the Waterstone Resort & Marina in Boca Raton put a dent in lionfish populations, giving the reefs a break.
And growing awareness about the lionfish problem is helping to control them in another way. Consumers are eating more lionfish, making them more valuable to divers who sell them to fish markets. Conservation-minded shoppers and diners understand they can help control a problem on Florida’s reefs by eating a fish with a delicate white meat.
“The fact that everybody’s enjoying eating them and the price is going up is a good thing,” said Capt. Clay Brand, owner of Capt. Clay & Sons Seafood Market in Delray Beach, who has offered lionfish at his market for about six years.
Brand pays divers $5 a pound for whole lionfish and sells it whole for about $10 a pound. As a diver, Brand sees lionfish on the reefs and spears many of the lionfish sold at his market. Bigger food retailers, notably Whole Foods Market and Publix, are offering lionfish to their customers, at least when they’re available.
Customers have been calling and putting in orders for lionfish at Whole Foods since the grocery chain began offering lionfish in April, said David Ventura, regional seafood coordinator for Whole Foods in Florida.
“The response has been very, very positive,” Ventura said. “It’s created a lot of interest.”
At the Whole Foods Market on Glades Road in Boca Raton, the seafood department staff often prepares samples of lionfish for customers on weekends.
“It’s similar to hogfish,” said Corey Hopkins, assistant team leader in the seafood department at the Boca Raton store. “It’s very light, very delicate. It’s good in ceviche. You can do just about anything with it.”
Unlike other fish whose populations could be under stress because they’re tasty, lionfish are actually a scourge, at least in the coastal waters of the United States, where they have no natural predators. That adds a feel-good component to eating lionfish.
A sign at Whole Foods in Boca Raton encourages customers to “take a bite out of lionfish … be a part of the solution.” In August, the store sold lionfish for $9.99 a pound whole and $29.99 a pound filleted. Red lionfish (Pterois volitans) are relatively small, typically 12 to 15 inches, but they can eat fish half their body length. They herd prey with their fan-like pectoral fins and blow water at other fish to get them to turn around before swallowing them.
In the waters off Florida, lionfish eat more than 70 species of fish and invertebrates, including yellowtail snapper, spiny lobster, parrotfish and Nassau grouper. With few natural enemies in the Southeast, 18 venomous spines for protection and the ability to live in a wide range of water depths, lionfish have become well established on Florida’s reefs and wrecks.
One problem for seafood markets has been the inconsistent availability of lionfish. When seas are rough and lobster season is closed, divers are less likely to pursue lionfish and they can be hard to find in markets.
At Publix, lionfish are available by special order through the supermarket chain’s Reel Variety program. Publix sells lionfish fillets with the skin on and bones in to maintain texture at prices ranging from $24.99 to $29.99 a pound. (The price of fillets is high because the whole fish yields about one third meat.)
The Lionfish Cookbook by Tricia Ferguson and Lad Akins has recipes for lionfish entrees and appetizers. Proceeds of the book, which sells for $16.95, go to lionfish research and removal programs.
How to cook lionfish
Most seafood markets have suggestions, and serious lionfish aficionados can order The Lionfish Cookbook by Tricia Ferguson and Lad Akins. The second edition of the cookbook contains more than 45 recipes for lionfish appetizers and entrees and is available for $16.95 through the nonprofit Reef Environmental Education Foundation at www.reef.org/store/lionfishcookbook.
REEF uses proceeds from sales of the cookbooks for lionfish research and removal programs.