Invasive lionfish taking over dinner tables

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It has the kind of face that not even a mother could love. It’s covered in venomous spines and barbs and has a nasty reputation for snacking on anything it comes across, especially other species’ young.

“It’s eating up all the baby snapper and grouper,” explained Whole Foods Markets seafood team leader Lenny Lisboa. “It’s a little glutton. It’ll eat anything it can fit in its mouth.”

Invasive lionfish have been doing a number on local fish populations and coral reefs for more than a decade. With no known predators, marine scientists say their numbers are growing out of control.

But there is a way you can help. All you need is a fork.

As it happens, the voracious, non-native species is pretty tasty. Several Bay Area restaurants feature lionfish on their menu and earlier this summer, Whole Foods Markets in Florida began stocking their seafood counters with the fish as well.

The idea is to get the lionfish out of our waters by putting them on our plates.

Unlike certain varieties of seafood where over fishing and sustainability are a concern, environmentally-minded chefs say we should be catching and eating as many lionfish as we can.

"That's what we need people to do. We need people to pull these fish from the waters whenever they can and definitely understand that eating them is doing a good thing," explained Chef Stephen Phelps, a James Beard Award nominee and owner/head chef of Indigenous Restaurant in Sarasota.

Phelps has featured the “trash” fish at least two dozen times on his menu and says he can hardly keep up with demand.

“When we run it [as a special] it’s gone within a matter of two hours. We actually have to reserve it for some people when they come in for dinner,” said Phelps, who recommends calling ahead to see if lionfish is on the menu.

The movement to turn a problem fish into something palatable has become so popular that Phelps says it can be hard to find fish vendors who have lionfish in stock.

"Now we've got this demand where you can finally eat a problem that we have. I have chef friends in California asking if I can get them some and I'm like, 'hey this is our problem, OK?'" laughed Phelps.

Whole Foods is also cutting into the supply, but Phelps says that’s a great problem for him to have. Unlike other types of fish, Whole Foods says it buys lionfish of all sizes. The way Lisboa sees it, a dead lionfish is the best kind of lionfish.

“We’ll take the babies, the big ones, we’ll take anything we can get because we just want to get it out of the oceans and be part of the solution,” said Lisboa.

Once the venomous spines and barbs are clipped off, (which Whole Foods’ seafood staff will do for you), the fish is easy to work with. Chefs say the mild, white fish is a lot like snapper and the filets can be sautéed, fried, baked, poached, served up in ceviché or the whole fish can go right on the grill.

For a few recipe ideas check out: