Conservation gastronomy: A novel approach to an invasive species

Invasive Pacific lionfish are wreaking havoc on Caribbean reefs. A new cookbook points the way to an unexpected win-win approach to culling their numbers: Eat them. Chris Turner did, and here’s what he discovered, as he wrote in this post for the site.

Back in January, my wife and I spent a few days at a resort in southeastern Cuba that specializes in scuba diving. We were a bit alarmed, to say the least, when we noticed our divemaster loading a speargun onto the boat as we prepared for our second dive. He took notice of our concern with a rueful chuckle, explaining the speargun with a single word: Lionfish.

Lionfish are proud hunters of the reefs of the South Pacific, stunning creatures colored in bold stripes, their visages framed by a majesterial mane of long spines. (In fact, we have a 1930s Australian tourism poster mounted in our front hallway that puts the lionfish front and center in its pitch to visit the Great Barrier Reef.)

The problem in Cuba and throughout the Caribbean is that the lionfish are foreigners with no natural predators, and they are voracious hunters of other reef fish — hatchlings in particular —threatening to lay ruin to whole populations of native species. The best guess is that they snuck their way into the Caribbean when an aquarium tank full of them was smashed in a Florida hurricane in 1992; in any case, they have since proliferated throughout the region, becoming particularly prevalent and worrisome in the last couple of years.

On our dive, our guide bagged three lionfish with his speargun, threading them carefully onto a hook at the end of a long line to avoid contact with their sharp spines, which contain a nasty poison. Back at the dive shop, he filleted them expertly using a couple of his metal spears and a dive knife, and we brought the fillets over to the beach restaurant next door to have them breaded and fried for us. The chef dropped a basket of fries into the fryer for good measure, and we gorged ourselves on an unexpected and wholly unique take on the classic fish-and-chips meal.

I can thus report firsthand that lionfish is delicious, a light but meaty whitefish akin to cod or sablefish in flavor and texture. And I can report as well that I probably ate more than my fill. That last piece? It wasn’t for me, you see; it was for the good of the reef.

Turns out that feasting on lionfish isn’t just a quirk of Cuba’s “Special Period.” All across the Caribbean, conservation organizations and resorts have begun to introduce lionfish to their menus and encourage visitors to gorge on the invasive fish. Indeed as the Miami Herald reports today, the Florida-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation has codified the practice in a new cookbook by the straightforward title of “The Lionfish Cookbook,” co-written by chef Tricia Ferguson and REEF operations director Lad Akins.

As the Herald reports, officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are doubtful that human consumption alone will be able to eliminate the lionfish. But they are strongly encouraging the harvest nonetheless, hoping it will keep their numbers small enough to stop them from devastating the juvenile grouper and snapper populations that lionfish feed on.

I’m all for it. It’s rare to find such a win-win conservation opportunity, and there might be no less guilt-inducing act of gluttony anywhere. It’s the polar opposite of going without.

Let’s call it “conservation gastronomy,” and let’s encourage resort operators to push it a step or two further. Why not have great all-you-can-eat lionfish feast nights? Themed menus with discounts for “altruistic” customers who go with the lionfish catch of the day? Spear-and-eat banquets at dive resorts across the Caribbean? Think about it: all things being equal, would you be more inclined to book your next vacation at any old resort, or the one offering the chance to hunt and eat the exotic lionfish to excess in the name of a healthier sea?

I mean, I’ve never fired a gun at an animal in my life, but I have to admit there was an unexpected thrill to watching spearfishing live in the water. And by the third speared lionfish, I felt like I might be up for a shot or two myself. After all, it was for a good cause.

If you’d like to carry on the conversation in 140-character bursts, follow Chris Turner on Twitter: @theturner.

For the original report go to

2 thoughts on “Conservation gastronomy: A novel approach to an invasive species

  1. The idea to promote consumption of lionfish might take hold with the Asian restaurants throughout America that display live sea food to its customers. I’ve seen tanks of lobster, tilapia, and other species. Lionfish would be much more beautiful to look at; and perhaps that will induce the customers to select lionfish from the menu of live seafood, especially with the knowledge revealed in this posting. Exporting the items should also add a significant number of local jobs.
    I would like to know if the lionfish exist close to Haiti where my organization Flag IntraGlobal is working to create new and non-competitive jobs. Harvesting lionfish seems like a non-competitive job. Another important question is, “How big does the fish need to be to be edible size?” The shipwreck that brought the lionfish into the Caribbean was likely taking aquarium size fish to the USA for supply to tropical fish stores. It may be more practical to collect young fish and grow them up to be edible size in a confined environment.

  2. I was laughing midway in this was an enjoyable piece to read and something to think about. Mmm.. eating that last piece for the sake of the reef was a good one.

    Here in Fiji in the South Pacific, we are surrounded by reefs and there are so many different threats that we have to deal with in order to keep our reefs pristine. This is a good idea to a real problem – catch them and eat them. The thing I am concerned about is your mention of their spikes, that it contains poison. This means that the spikes need to be cut away by those who intend to cook it for dinner.

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