Lionfish may have value as seafood catch

kquist@keynoter.comAugust 5, 2011 

A whole lionfish prepared at Key Largo's Fish House Encore restaurant.

When commercial lobster fishermen start pulling their traps this weekend, odds are good many will find some of the island chain’s most unwelcome new residents, the Indio-Pacific lionfish, hitching a ride inside.

Marine science and dive communities in the Keys have been at war with the invader for a couple of years now. A new front in the battle — one that could be profitable for fishermen and the environment — opens with the start of the eight-month commercial lobster season.

While the invasive — and apparently incredibly yummy — species has a growing legion of fans in the culinary world, it’s too early to tell how viable it is as a commercial fish in the Keys.

“We’re going to know a lot more after the lobster season,” said Lad Akins, director of special projects for the Key Largo-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation, one of the marine science organizations on the front lines of the fight to control the fish in local waters. “The question is how many of those fishermen will get them to market. If they do, they’ll find it’s well worth their time.”

Akins knows there are restaurants in New York and Chicago that are clamoring to get the fish. Even in the Caribbean, where the fish is prodigious, it’s still mostly caught for local consumption. Akins said that’s beginning to change as fish-processing plants adjust to handle the fish with the venomous spines.

The lionfish poses a problem for commercial fishers — and the local marine ecosystem as a whole — because it’s a prolific reproducer with a voracious appetite and no natural predators. So, it’s in fishermen’s best interest to get the lionfish before it gobbles up commercially valuable species like grouper and snapper.

Eat them first

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association launched a widespread “Eat Lionfish” campaign last year, and its Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has partnered with REEF on a series of lionfish derbies to promote the safe capture — and consumption — of the fish by recreational divers. The next derby one is Aug. 20 in Key Largo; details are at www.reef.org/lionfish/derbies/keysderbies.

Until recently, most removal efforts like the derby have focused on recreational divers, who are able to pick lionfish off one by one using a variety of methods, including nets and spears. That started to change last season, as lionfish turned up in fishermen’s traps in more significant numbers. Licensed commercial fishermen are able to sell lionfish they find in their lobster traps as bycatch, and because the fish is not welcome in these waters, there are no size limits.

Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fisherman’s Association, estimated that fewer than 10 of his trap-fishermen members are selling their lionfish bycatch, but he expects those numbers will grow. “I think it has enormous marketing potential... as this population continues to explode,” Kelly said.

Beyond finding a market for the lionfish, Kelly hopes his members will be able to help marine researchers get a better handle on how serious the invasion has become.

To hear Kelly talk, you’d think Middle Keys fisherman Gary Nichols was the king of lionfish.

“But it’s only because I fish where the lionfish live,” said Nichols, who is finding them in a much different habitat than the snorkelers and divers who are pick them off the shallow-water reef line; his traps are in 150 to 225 feet of structure-free water.

That’s problematic for researchers, because Akins said they know the least about how lionfish behave in those deeper waters beyond the reach of recreational divers.

“People have started to catch them on hook and line in deep water, like 400 to 800 feet,” he said. “We didn’t expect that — having them take cut bait is really surprising. It’s something fishermen may see more frequently.”

Nichols and daughter Kelly run two boats out of Nichols Seafood, and they’ve witnessed the invading population grow. “Two years ago, I called in every lionfish I saw to Lad and the others,” he said, “and by the end of the season, I’d probably caught 60 total.”

Growing larger

Nichols said the lionfish caught early last in the season were small, but they grew in both size and number as the season progressed. By the end of last season, Nichols said, the usual lionfish count was more like 100 out of a 500-trap pull. It was enough of a haul to be worth selling them out of his Conch Key fish house.

“I’m shipping them to South Carolina, selling them to [Fish House] Encore.... It’s becoming a new thing,” said the 38-year fisherman. “I’m not truly targeting lionfish, but I’m getting more of them than any other kind of fish [as bycatch].”

Michelle Kosiek, general manager of the Fish House and Encore restaurants in Key Largo, said she can’t wait to put lionfish back on the menu.

Akins taught Encore Chef Peter Tselikis how to safely handle the fish. It’s prepared one way — fried whole — because the restaurant’s supply so far has been too small to serve as fillets. If the restaurant starts to get larger fish, Kosiek said it could be served different ways, added to the larger Fish House menu or even sold in the market.

“They’ve loved it,” Kosiek said of the mostly local crowd who’ve tried the lionfish. Many people say it’s comparable in taste to hogfish, and some say it’s even better. Kelly is one of those people. He had his first taste at Encore, and he was hooked. “It’s really good — very smooth, very delicate, very flavorful.”

Tom Hill knows the lionfish is an environmental scourge in the Keys, and he knows there’s wholesale and retail demand for the fish, but he has no plans to sell them. More power to those who do, he says.

“I don’t need anyone getting hurt because they handled something incorrectly,” said Hill, whose family owns Key Largo Fisheries. “It’s a dangerous little creature.”

The dorsal and pelvic spines of the flamboyant lionfish can deliver a painful venom-laced sting. Accidental contact with one of the spines can mean just a little discomfort, hours of pain or even days of lost work, depending on the severity of the contact and the person’s reaction.

Kelly and Akins said they’ve been talking about doing workshops for fishing captains and their deckhands so they know how to properly deal with the fish. “A lot of the hesitation is that they’re just not aware of how easy they are to handle,” Akins said.

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