Uncle Sam Wants You...to Eat Lionfish.

Uncle Sam Wants You...to Eat Lionfish.

Food & Drink

Uncle Sam Wants You...to Eat Lionfish.

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By Cari Martens

The federal government is backing plans to halt the spread of the ravenous and invasive lionfish, which have spread throughout the Caribbean and up and down the East Coast of the U.S. in recent years.

Most recently, this predator fish has invaded the critical reef habitat off the Florida Keys.

Photo: NOAA

The plan: persuade commercial fishermen to fish for lionfish, and get American consumers to eat it.

The catch: the fish is venomous.

The rest of the story: the venom is only in its lion-like ‘mane’ of spines, not in the meat of the fish. So the lionfish IS safe to eat—and said to be quite tasty, too.

Lionfish, also called turkey, scorpion or fire fish, were kept as exotic pets in the U.S. for years, and it was probably someone in the aquarium business that first freed the fish into the Atlantic, where they were first seen in the 1980s. Since then, there’s been a population explosion of them, according to a story by Kari Huus, writing for MSNBC.

Conservationists say the lionfish threaten recovery of overfished species such as grouper and snapper because they eat them, consume these fish’s prey and compete for space in the reefs. While it’s probably impossible to eradicate lionfish in the Atlantic, targeting them in specific areas and coral reefs would go a long way to easing the problem.

Thus, the need for the ‘Eat Lionfish’ campaign.

The first step is convincing fishermen to fish for lionfish. ‘I think the main concern with most of the fishermen is that once you’ve caught it, getting it back in the water without getting stuck by it,’ says Wayne Mershon, owner of Kenyon Seafood, a South Carolina fish supplier. Many fisherman just don’t want to risk handling the fish. Although the sting is not normally deadly to humans, it is very painful and makes some people quite sick.

REEF, a nonprofit marine conservation group, has been sponsoring ‘lionfish derbies’ to help promote the campaign. In the first derby, held in May 2009, in the Bahamas, competitors caught more than 1,400 lionfish. Starting in September, REEF has derbies scheduled in Key Largo, Marathon, and Key West, where the lionfish population has become a major issue. The conservation group is also developing a lionfish cookbook, with recipes gathered from around the Caribbean. In addition to the recipes, it includes information on how to avoid and treat wounds from the venomous spines. You know, just in case.

Lionfish is said to be delicious. Which may be the key to the success of the ‘Eat Lionfish’ efforts.

NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—a federal agency—has plans for a series of lionfish events at restaurants across the country in the coming year aimed at creating demand all down the line from fisherman, to wholesaler, to the consumer.

Look for the lionfish campaign to get off to a roaring start in 2011.

Maybe Disney could do another animated feature that combines the best from its undersea and African Jungle films. “The Lion Fish” could be a hit if it has enough catchy tunes. Maybe even make it to Broadway.

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