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Growing appetite for lionfish at restaurants helps clean Gulf reefs

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 8/4/2017 Melissa Nelson Gabriel
Jackson's Steakhouse in downtown Pensacola serves up lionfish fillets on its menu. Officials say they've seen a growing demand for lionfish meat by upscale restaurants © Melissa Nelson Gabriel/mnelsongab@pnj.com Jackson's Steakhouse in downtown Pensacola serves up lionfish fillets on its menu. Officials say they've seen a growing demand for lionfish meat by upscale restaurants

PENSACOLA, Fla. — A growing demand for tasty lionfish meat at upscale restaurants is helping remove the invasive species from reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. 

"We definitely are seeing more and more people interested in the concept of eating lionfish," said Amanda Nalley of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 

Nalley has traveled the state for the last six years trying to get out the word about the voracious predator fish that thrives in the northern Gulf of Mexico and destroys native fish species. 

The awareness campaigns appear to be working, she said. 

Commercial harvesting numbers for lionfish are up, and divers are reporting fewer of the colorful fish with lion-like manes of feathery fins and venomous spines on Pensacola-area public reefs, she said. 

Among the big purchasers of local lionfish is Ryan Chadwick, a New York restaurateur who started Norman's Lionfish. The company provides lionfish meat for restaurants around the country. 

Chadwick said he has seen a big increase in demand for the fish because of the company's contract with the Whole Foods grocery chain. When the Norman's Lionfish started a few years ago, he averaged around 50 pounds a week. Nowadays, he purchases as much as 800 pounds a week. 

"I am getting requests from chefs all over the country," he said.

Executive chef Irv Miller features lionfish fillets at Jackson's Steakhouse in downtown Pensacola. He serves the fillets seared with a light dusting of flour and mixed spices on a colorful plate with jasmine rice for around $30. 

He has trouble buying enough lionfish to keep up with the demand, but wants to help eradicate the predator fish that eat young snapper, grouper and shrimp.

"I am a longtime chef and a Gulf Coast seafood guy and when I found about what the lionfish were doing, I felt compelled to do my part to help get rid of them," Miller said. 

Restaurants in Atlanta, New York and other big cities offer lionfish at higher prices and are seeing a big demand for the flaky fillets with a density similar to grouper.

The fillets, which are carved in a way that eliminates the venomous spines, are difficult to get because lionfish can only be harvested by divers who spearfish. 

"It is a delicious fish, but it is not easy to get it from the water to the table because spearfishing is an expensive way to harvest a fish," said Nalley of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 

Anna Clark of Pensacola's Coast Watch Alliance, an environmental advocacy group, said the demand for lionfish meat is helping drive innovations in possible traps and even lionfish-zapping robots. 

The devices could help round up lionfish from deeper waters that are not easily accessed by spear fisherman, she said. 

"The demand for lionfish meat is definitely growing. We cannot get enough (lionfish) to meet the demand from restaurants on the Eastern Seaboard," she said. 

Andy Ross of Niuhi Dive Charters supplies lionfish to Jackson's Steakhouse and to Norman's Lionfish. 

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Ross said he loves to see his fish served locally.

"I kind of feel bad seeing it leave the state," said Ross, who has been a big advocate of local efforts to raise awareness about the lionfish invasion. 

Right now, he said, the average wholesale price for lionfish is about $5 a pound. 

"But that is going to go up because we are getting to the point where it is hard to supply the demand, and we are having to go to deeper and deeper spots," Ross said. 

Despite the growing demand, Ross said, lionfish are still doing a lot of damage to native Gulf fisheries. 

"They take over dive sites. I've been to sites where there is nothing but lionfish. They are fat, they reproduce at an amazing rate and they eat all of the game fish. We've even seen lobsters and octopus in their bellies," he said.

Lionfish are native to the waters of the Indo-Pacific region. They began to flourish off Florida in the 1980s when aquarium collectors released some of the fish in the area.

Each female lionfish spawns millions of eggs a year, and the species has no known natural predators in the northern Gulf. 

 

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