Eating the enemy

click to enlarge Eating the enemy
courtesy of NOAA

THESE ARE demanding days for worriers, so many causes and catastrophes crowding our consciences.

Our hearts are with those suffering from the aftermath of the Mexico earthquake and South Asia floods, our donations sent to the resilient residents of Texas, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean islands who will be rebuilding their lives for months, even years.

Our hands are wringing over healthcare access and horrible-haired world leaders namecalling like preschoolers on the playground, waving around nuclear weapons instead of sticks and stones.

Our knees are down in solidarity with athletes putting their careers on the line for racial injustice, and our anxiety-induced acid reflux has become a permanent condition with the long-range vexations of ecological ruin, economic instability and I-16 drivers’ astounding inability to understand that the left lane is for passing only.

It’s enough to make a person want to descend into darkness with all of the pumpkin spice things and stress eat until spring.

Of course, stuffing our faces doesn’t have a positive effect on a damn thing except the elastic waistband industry. Unless you’re a seafood lover who’s passionate about saving our oceans, in which case eating your feelings can actually make a direct impact.

Perhaps you’ve heard of lionfish, a fluttery-looking species native to the waters of western Australia and Polynesia that has been become a nasty nuisance since the first few were spotted off the coast of Florida in the mid-1980s. These carnival-colored carnivores are now wreaking havoc in the Atlantic, feasting on young grouper and snapper and threatening commercial fisheries that provide food to millions. They’ve also decimated the parrotfish population that keeps the algae that attacks coral reefs under control, leading to the extinction of even more species.

A rack of venomous spines deters would-be enemies, allowing these aquatic gluttons to proliferate unchecked. One biologist describes lionfish as “biological pollution” that lay up to 50,000 eggs every few days and lay waste to fragile habitats faster than we can pollute them ourselves.

Legend has it that an aquarium full of these flamboyant little hellions got washed out to sea by Hurricane Andrew and started breeding madly; scientists now say it’s more likely that a few idiots released their unwanted pets into open waters after they murdered everything else in the fish bowl.

No matter who’s to blame, the striped savages have now disrupted coastal habitats to Caracas to Cape Hatteras, with no natural predators to beat them back.

That is, none but a certain soft-skinned, flat-toothed land mammal with access to fire and tasty marinades.

While researchers suspect these voracious space invaders can’t be completely eradiated, they’re encouraging everyone to take a stab at controlling the lionfish population with our forks.

For real, that’s the official strategy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is developing better tools for bigger yields and sponsors “lionfish derbies” to promote hunting them as sport.

“We think the best solution is to eat them,” declares Dr. Steve Gittings, the chief scientist for NOAA’s Office of Marine Sanctuaries. “Not only does that solve the invasive species problem, it provides a sustainable food source that won’t run out anytime soon.”

Lionfish are a local issue as Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary is just 50 miles off the coast from Savannah, and scientist Kim Roberson says her team removed 23 of them this summer during at two-week expedition on the R/V Nancy Foster.

“They’re kind of everywhere, and they eat everything,” laments Dr. Roberson of their effect on the bustling habitat that provides endless options for research.

Fortunately lionfish taste better than they behave, and I recently had the opportunity to binge on these “malicious but delicious” creatures at A Fishy Affair, the annual lionfish dinner benefitting the Gray’s Reef Foundation. The Landings’ executive chef Sam Brod, sushi king Jin Kang, Edgar’s Proof & Provisions executive chef Dusty Grove and Atlantic’s award-winning Lauren Teague prepared four remarkable dishes starring the surprisingly versatile and mild whitefish, which pairs well with everything from olive tapenade to tequila.

It was extra satisfying knowing that each bite meant a little less trouble in the world. Before gleefully devouring the destructive pests, my husband symbolically renamed his plates “Irma,” “Maria,” “Graham-Cassidy” and “Dotard.”

To corral these invasive suckers for good, however, consumption must be more than symbolic. It would be excellent if we could just snatch up a few lionfish fillets for an easy weekday supper (I’m thinking baked with lemon butter and capers over quinoa, ta-da.) But getting the rapacious little monsters from ocean to table isn’t so simple just yet.

First of all, lionfish generally ignore hooks and lines, making them hard to catch and therefore expensive, retailing for $10-15 per pound when it’s available. Spearing has been the most popular harvesting method, but the interest is spawning new innovations. The makers of the Roomba vacuum are testing an underwater robot prototype that targets lionfish, and NOAA’s Dr. Gittings is developing the first commercial-grade lionfish trap using “fish aggregation devices” (FADs) to lure in lionfish—which average between one and two pounds each—in greater numbers.

“Once we can deliver a consistent supply, the market will sort itself out and prices will drop,” promises the marine biologist.

Once lionfish procurement is tackled, there’s still the matter of those venomous spines, which are still active after the fish isn’t. While a sting isn’t fatal to humans, it reportedly hurts like hell, and many seafood purveyors would rather not mess with them. There’s certainly a lucrative opportunity there for fast-handed fishmongers with the right technique, just as Charlie Russo Sr. helped corner the local market for shad in the 1970s and 80s by developing a speedy way to debone the seasonal fish.

Although apparently it’s a badge of honor to use one as a toothpick, those mean prickers are usually clipped when the lionfish arrives to a chef, who must still break down the body to its edible parts. Chef Dusty Grove describes the process as removing “a lot of head” to yield 4-or-so-ounce filets.

“The key is having a very sharp knife,” he nods.

With all the worrisome circumstances on our plates these days, perhaps it’s bougie to suggest we can eat our way to a better world. Scarfing lionfish won’t rebuild Puerto Rico or muzzle the madmen or find Colin Kaepernick a job, but it can support the fishing industries of those devastated islands, spur innovations that create economic growth and bring balance back to underwater habitats.

So ask your favorite restaurants and fish counters to carry it, because it’s not every day we get to solve a serious problem by serving it with a nice vinaigrette.

Which reminds me, anyone know a good recipe for kudzu salad?


About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.
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