Photo by John D. Ivanko/farmsteadchef.com
The invasive lionfish is running out native fish species along the Atlantic coast.
Among the world’s most venomous fish species, the lionfish is quickly establishing itself throughout North America’s only living coral reefs in the Florida Keys, and their impact on the reefs is inescapable. During our travels, we met divers eager to spear lionfish and restaurant chefs serving them up on their menus. The Reef Environmental Education Foundation, an conservation group, even organizes a “Lionfish Derby,” attempting to rid the reef of this invasive species’ presence.
The prolific, exotic lionfish has invaded the Atlantic coast from as far north as Rhode Island down to the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. During devastating Hurricane Andrew, which swept through southern Florida in 1992, some of these colorful and spiny fish supposedly managed to escape from an aquarium, but the arrival of lionfish more likely resulted from being released into the wild by the U.S. aquarium trade starting in the 1980s.
Native to Malaysia and Australia, lionfish threaten the stability of native North American fish populations while facing no opposing predator willing to get stung by some of their spines—13 in all. Even sharks leave them alone!
Fortunately, divers like John Mirabella are comfortable 100 feet underwater and have lionfish on their radar. Wielding a 48-inch-long, three-pronged pole spear and a 60-inch speargun, Mirabella eagerly fires at hogfish or grouper when they’re in season, but he prefers lionfish. He does his hunting at a bank reef about 4 miles off shore with four diving buddies, one of whom is Adolphus A. Busch IV, the Anheuser-Busch founder’s great-grandson.
“Adolphus Busch has made it his goal to kill every lionfish we can every day,” Mirabella says. “Eradication seems unlikely, but we are putting a serious dent in the population at the edge of the reef in Marathon.”
Niko Gazzale, a lean and lanky spearo out of Key West, shares Mirabella’s passion. He’s quick to share a photo of his latest haul: 38 lionfish on ice in the front of his new 33-foot American catamaran. This 23-year-old, who leads guided tours on a Jet Ski around the island for Barefoot Billy’s, supplements his income by providing Key West’s Eaton Street Market with a seemingly endless supply of lionfish. Jason Tiller, a member of Gazzale’s four-person spear-fishing crew, makes his own Impaler Spearguns.
“The lionfish grow rapidly due to the fact they are breeding all over wrecks and taking over reefs,” Gazzale says. “Any small fish will be eaten by these lionfish. There’s nothing you can do but keep killing them off.”
“When the weather is good, I spearfish daily for our catch and a lot of what we do is go after lionfish,” says Mirabella, grinning as cuts off the lionfish’s venomous spines, some as long as 4 inches.
He conveys a sense of conviction and urgency in spearing lionfish before they ruin the bit of paradise on which he’s built his livelihood. He and his wife, Arlene, regularly serve up lionfish at their bustling Castaway Waterfront Restaurant and Sushi Bar in Marathon, Fla.
“Handling lionfish is hazardous until we get them into the kitchen with their spines off,” Mirabella continues. He and his diving buddies created a lionfish stringer line, fabricated out of old, bent spears, to hold their catch and carefully transfer them from the ocean to their boat’s ice-filled fish-kill compartment. “Getting poked with the poisonous spines is really, really painful.”
Coming from Mirabella, that’s saying something: When in the kitchen, he’s probably the kind of short-order line cook that moves piping-hot sauté pans without gloves.
“We serve more lionfish than any other restaurant in the Florida Keys,” Mirabella says. Judging by the 13 lionfish lined up on top of his kill box at the back of the boat, they’ll be plenty on the menu tonight. The largest lionfish he’s ever speared was 18 inches long.
Lionfish’s flavor rivals that of the increasingly popular hogfish, another spear-caught fish. They’re good eating! A white fish that’s light and flaky and, lionfish can be served up in ways that appeal to any palate. Castaway Waterfront’s award-winning recipe is found below.
In the same way our culinary decisions have helped preserve heritage breeds and heirloom produce, savoring lionfish might be the most effective way to keep the species from totally overtaking native fish populations.
Recipe: Castaway’s Mazatlan-style Lionfish
Yield: 6 servings
Turn filets over, and add artichoke hearts, mushrooms, scallions, salt and pepper. Add white wine and heavy cream, and reduce sauce by 50 percent.
Add tomatoes and basil just long enough to warm them.
Serve immediately over rice or with another side. Garnish with lemon wedge.
Savoring the good life,