Bristling with venomous spines and possessed of a voracious appetite, lionfish have joined a growing list of invasive species infiltrating U.S. land and water. But an unusual partnership of conservationists and cooks argue that some of the best weapons to attack these invaders are the knife and fork.
For species that have proven almost impossible to contain, whether feral boar or creeping kudzu, advocates embrace an “if you can’t beat them, eat them” ethos. Dubbed invasivores, a portmanteau of ‘locavore’ and ‘invasive,’ the catchphrase proudly puts invasive species on the menu.
In a networked world, flora and fauna are on the move. Hitching rides in the belly of container ship or a tourist’s suitcase, or released into wild intentionally (like kudzu) or accidentally (like snakeheads), invasive species are a global problem.
Thus far, the U.S. Geological Survey has identified 6,500 foreign organisms that pose a threat to habitats and wildlife in the United States. Invasives cost the U.S. economy an estimated $132 billion each year, often outpace rare and endangered species in competition for resources and can even harm human health.
In many cases, though, a new species might be both a demonized invasive and a saintly import; human capriciousness turns today’s novelty pet, food or garden item into tomorrow’s alien pest.
“What we define as invasive is in part value driven, and values change through time. So what we consider to be invasive now might be considered acceptable or even be beneficial in the future. And vice versa,” said Cindy Kolar, a scientist with the USGS.
With that in mind, efforts are afoot to snatch a victory from the jaws of the lionfish by enlisting sports fishermen, commercial divers and chefs to help out.
Popular among aquarium enthusiasts for their zebra stripes and hardiness, lionfish are raising major concerns among marine conservationists in Florida. Native to the Indo-Pacific ocean and the Red Sea, lionfish have no known predators in the Atlantic.
”It’s a perfect invader. Not having evolved in this ocean it has many advantages that allow it to flourish,” said Laddie Akins, director of special operations at the Reef Environmental Education Foundation. REEF is a nonprofit group of civic-minded divers perhaps best known for their ongoing fish surveys.
Accounts of lionfish in U.S. waters lurch between urban legend and provable fact. Numerous sources report six lionfish were first seen in the Biscayne Bay in 1992, apparently having been freed shortly after Hurricane Andrew damaged a beachside aquarium. But then pet owners may have released lionfish into the ocean near Miami during the 1980s and ’90s.
Regardless of how they arrived, their presence is felt — and growing. Researchers with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration examining the stomachs of lionfish have found the remains of 50 species of other fish, ranging from commercially valuable grouper, snapper and crustaceans to fish that groom coral reefs, such as the algae-eating parrotfish.
Lionfish reach maturity within two years and reproduce frequently, producing up to 30,000 eggs each time per spawn. Ocean currents have carried those eggs north to Bermuda and through parts of the Caribbean, Akins surmises.
REEF has declared open season on this formidable predator at the top of the food chain by adding one more link — humans — in hopes of catching, killing and eating the Atlantic lionfish out of existence.
While the group has organized fishing derbies to put a price on the lionfish’s head, it’s also tried to create a demand for the fish as a delicacy.
In December 2010, REEF published the Lionfish Cookbook, a primer detailing the cooking and preparation of lionfish. It is perhaps the first marine species to have an entire cookbook dedicated to raising its demand while reducing its supply. Meanwhile, NOAA also encourages lionfish consumption — and, it hopes, depletion — with its Eat Lionfish campaign.
REEF’s project is attracting prominent chefs in Washington, D.C., lured by the prospect of working with new ingredients. Recently, Xavier Deshayes, executive chef at the Ronald Reagan Building, joined a lionfish derby in the Bahamas as part of an "ocean to plate" lecture series hosted by the National Aquarium.
“It’s very exciting for a chef to know exactly where his fish is coming from,” he said. “It’s a completely different experience than getting your fish from a supplier.”
A native of Beziers, France, Deshayes began his culinary career regularly visiting farmers markets with his restaurateur father. When he saw the lionfish, he said, he immediately saw the potential of a fish similar to the Mediterranean’s rascasse — the essential ingredient in bouillabaisse, a sublime fish stew that borders on the sacred to French cooking and culinary traditions.
According to Deshayes once filleted lionfish are similar in flavor and texture to halibut, a seafood staple that is flash frozen and shipped to high-end restaurants across the United States. Following that model, he suggested, lionfish entrees could be sold at prices comparable to Pacific cod at $25 to $30 per plate.
Although they are tasty, Deshayes fears lionfish probably are not suitable for his dining establishment, a high-volume restaurant and catering service. “Lionfish would be a hard sell” to diners more accustomed to tamer fare, he said, and, at best, would be served only occasionally.
The idea of eating invasive species isn’t new. Take the weed kudzu, first introduced to North America at the U.S.’s 1876 Centennial Exposition. Initially, kudzu captured the imaginations of gardeners and later agronomists who extolled its use as a desirable cover crop to prevent erosion. Now the too-fast-growing vine is rampant in the Southeast, coating 7 million acres. But the so-called green menace had inspired cookbooks, recipes and more than a few harvest festivals.
As a meme, the idea of eating invasive species may have staying power, especially among adventurous gourmands willing step beyond the comfortable boundaries of farmers markets and crunchy food co-ops. Recent books such as The Scavengers Guide to Haute Cuisine, Hank Shaw’s pending title Hunt, Gather, Cook, and Jackson Landers’ blog The Locavore Hunter demonstrate moxie that’s part Michael Pollan, part Davy Crockett.