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How to conquer the invasive lionfish? Saute it.

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; E01

Lionfish makes for a stunning sight underwater, with its vibrant red hue and long, venomous spines. But it is also a relentless predator in U.S. and Caribbean waters, a trait that threatens coral reefs in the Southeast, Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

Sustainable-seafood advocates typically advise consumers to stay away from overfished, endangered species, but in this case they're taking the opposite tack. Federal officials have joined with chefs, spear fishermen and seafood distributors to launch a bold campaign: Eat lionfish until it no longer exists outside its native habitat.

Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration theorize that the fish, a native of the western Pacific, was released from fish tanks in southern Florida sometime between the late 1980s and the early 1990s. By 2000 it had established itself off the North Carolina coast, and it has now expanded into the Caribbean and threatens to take over waters in South America and the Gulf of Mexico.

"There are some locations where lionfish have totally altered the biodiversity of a reef," said James Morris, a NOAA ecologist at the agency's Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research in Beaufort, N.C.

As a top predator, it consumes juvenile snapper and grouper along with algae-eating parrotfish, all of which help keep reefs healthy. Between 2004 and 2008, local densities of lionfish increased by roughly 700 percent in some areas; there are now 1,000 lionfish per acre on certain reefs.

In trying to create a consumer demand for lionfish, a handful of conservationists and restaurant industry experts are saying that humans are the only predator that can wipe it out. The Reef Environmental Education Foundation is preparing a cookbook to educate chefs on how to prepare the species, a delicate and sweet white fish that tastes like a cross between snapper and grouper.

"This fish is delicious," said seafood distributor Sean Dimin, co-owner of Sea to Table, who visited Beaufort last year and learned that divers were catching it in "lionfish rodeos" and cooking it on the beach.

Dimin brought in a single shipment that sold out at Chicago's North Pond Restaurant and New York's Esca. Now lionfish has come to Washington. On June 11, Washington chef and Blue Ocean Institute fellow Barton Seaver served it during the Smithsonian Sustainable Seafood weekend, and he gave extra fillets to chefs at Hank's Oyster Bar, Nora, Poste Moderne Brasserie and the just-opened Ripple.

"It's taking over ecosystems from Trinidad and Tobago all the way up to Maine," Seaver said. "Our solution is just to eat it."

Ripple chef Teddy Diggs said he's experimenting with lionfish, curing it in lemon juice and salt to create a garnish for a zucchini and summer squash soup. His customers loved it, as did he after he sauteed it in brown butter, drizzled a little vinegar on it and served it over greens. "I'm looking forward to using it," Diggs said. "The availability is the issue."

Distributors such as Dimin and David Johnson, president of Traditional Fisheries, are still trying to work out the economics of selling lionfish because catching it remains costly and labor-intensive. Johnson, who is based in Minnesota but whose Mexican brothers-in-law work as spear fishermen, has organized 24 fishermen near Cancun to catch lionfish.

"It's spearing, spearing, spearing," said Johnson, who delivered a shipment of lionfish to Seaver.

M.J. Gimbar, fishmonger at BlackSalt restaurant and market in the Palisades, said he would consider buying the fish at some point, but Johnson is not yet in a position to import it on a large, commercial scale.

"At this point no, it's not an option, but it could be an option three months from now," Gimbar said. At $24 per pound, lionfish would be priced comparably to tilefish and sturgeon, he added.

Johnson is talking to fishermen all the way down to Belize and says he hopes this new fishery will help compensate for the fact that other ones, such as those for conch, lobster and grouper, are closed four months a year to curb overfishing. "With lionfish, the more hunting, the better," he said.

In the meantime, scientists such as Morris are studying how the species is affecting the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey are tracking it through their Non-Indigenous Aquatic Species Database. The situation is so serious that a group of scientists just published a journal article identifying lionfish as one of the top 15 threats to biodiversity worldwide.

"This is a big deal," Morris said.

The fish has also emerged as an underground gourmet delicacy: There are at least three Facebook groups devoted to the cause, including "I Spear Lionfish," "Lionfish Derby" and "Eat the Lionfish."

And although filleting a fish bristling with venomous spikes poses a challenge, once it's filleted, lionfish is easy to prepare. I sliced it into one-inch strips, cooked it in Seaver's version of a romesco sauce -- fire-roasted vegetables pureed with almonds and olive oil -- and served it over Israeli couscous for my family and friends.

At the end of the meal, the consensus was clear: Eradication never tasted so sweet.

Recipe

Lionfish Romesco Stew

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