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With lionfish on your plate, there’s one less problem in the sea

March 2nd 2019

When it’s meal time during your small group adventure to Central America, choose a new, tasty dish that will help the marine environment: exotic-looking lionfish.

Native to the Indian Ocean and South Pacific, lionfish became a favorite for home aquarium owners in the U.S. because of their eye-catching vertical stripes, broad, elegant fins, and over-sized dorsal spikes, which actually are venomous, serving as a defense mechanism in the wild.

The love affair didn’t last, however, as the lionfish ate whatever else was in the tank, and sometimes stung owners during aquarium maintenance. To get rid of the disappointing specimen, some owners in southern Florida just dumped the fish into local waterways, starting roughly in the early 1980s.

Marine menace

Since then, lionfish have multiplied quickly with no known predators in their new habitat. On top of that, they’re voracious eaters, decimating native species of fish and crustaceans in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, and mid-Atlantic waters. In some locations, they’ve reduced local fisheries by up to 90 percent, in turn damaging already stressed coral reefs by removing helpful species.

On the plus side, lionfish have become a new Caribbean delicacy with white, flaky meat that compares in flavor to snapper. In 2014, traveling chef Andrew Zimmern, always in search of weird eats for his Travel Channel show, declared lionfish “superb” after he joined a lionfishing voyage in the Florida Keys.

Restaurants, cook shacks, and home kitchens have all found delicious ways of serving lionfish — once properly cleaned, of course, with the stinging spikes and venomous sacs long gone. Varieties include pan seared, blackened, whole fried, grilled, breaded, or in tacos, ceviche, and fritters. It’s a healthy option, too, with lots of omega-3 fatty acids and being low in mercury, lead, and other chemicals unfortunately being found in some seafood.

Reason to party

Catching the elusive creatures is no simple task because they don’t commonly bite a hook. And hanging out among rock and coral formations, lionfish remain generally safe from cast nets. Instead, divers spear them or use hand nets to haul them in.

Many island and coastal communities organize regular lionfishing events, turning a nuisance fish into a reason to party. Look for announcements about lionfish rodeos or derbies as you travel in the islands and along the coasts of Central America. Contests include prizes for divers who bring in the biggest and the most lionfish, and other incentives to maximize hauls. The day’s catch goes to nearby restaurants to serve for their guests.

At the lionfish roundups, you and your fellow adventure travelers get to join in by enjoying various lionfish dishes and samples, cheering the divers, following the scoring, taking part in cooking lessons, and of course, downing some cold tropical drinks offered by vendors at the events.

Otherwise, just look for lionfish on the menu when traveling in Central America and try something new. With untold millions of lionfish out there and multiplying rapidly, making a small dent in their population in sensitive coastal areas goes a long way to protect sensitive reefs and native fish. So dig in!

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