Want to save the gulf? Whole Foods wants you to eat lionfish

Published June 2 2016
Updated June 2 2016

TAMPA — You've seen their unicorn-like horns, venomous spines and distinctive stripes on movie screens and behind the glass walls of aquariums, but are you ready to see lionfish on your dinner plate?

Environmentalists and supermarkets like Whole Foods sure hope so — and they say it may be the only way to control the invasive species' exploding population.

Nature isn't solving the problem. These fish, whose natural home is the South Pacific and Indian oceans, aren't supposed to be in the Gulf of Mexico.

Lionfish are the exotic species most destructive to marine life along the Florida and Caribbean coasts, according to experts.

"Nothing is keeping their numbers in check but (humans)," said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Amanda Nalley.

So Floridians, it's time to pull out your best pan and cook up some lionfish filets. It'll help save the waters around Florida, after all — and those who have sampled it say the white, flaky, buttery meat is pretty tasty.

Lionfish have already proven they have no predators to keep them in check in Florida waters. In fact, fishermen in Conch Key have observed them eating each other. The voracious lionfish can consume dozens of small fish and other organisms in one feeding. They're also destroying the delicate ecosystems of coral reefs.

Whole Foods Market started carrying the fish in Florida locations in April, said David Ventura, the chain's seafood coordinator in the state. He said the goal is to offer the fish year-round at the upscale grocer's 26 Florida locations and create a demand to encourage the fishing industry to keep killing them by the thousands of pounds.

Sales have been solid, Ventura said Thursday, and the company has "been blown away" by positive consumer feedback.

"The public is very happy we are selling it," Ventura said. "And the reason they are so happy is because they are aware of what the lionfish is doing."

VIEW AN ANIMATED 20-YEAR MAP FROM THE NATIONAL GEOLOGICAL SURVEY WEBSITE SHOWING THE SPREAD OF LIONFISH

Just before noon on Thursday, the Whole Foods on N Dale Mabry Highway received a 50-pound delivery of the fish. They sat stacked on top of each other in a box of crushed ice.

In the seafood department, Ray Martinez carefully unloaded each fish into a metal display case filled with ice. He let out a gasp when he saw one of the "big guys."

That Whole Foods location started selling the lionfish two weeks ago, said Mario Torres, who helps manage the Tampa store. As word spread about Whole Food's stock of lionfish, Torres said, it's been hard to keep up with demand.

He had to turn away at least four people Wednesday night who came in after dinner time in search of lionfish. If you're heading to the store solely for the lionfish, Torres recommends calling the store ahead of time to check on inventory.

Inventory is also the biggest problem when it comes to making lionfish an everyday item at the grocery store. There's certainly enough lionfish in the sea to meet demand, but there aren't that many people out there catching them.

Publix, for example, will order lionfish upon request, but doesn't keep them stores. It takes a couple of days for orders to make it to the supermarket, said Publix spokesman Brian West.

"It's because the fisheries are so under developed," he said. "I think it's growing in popularity, but until the fisheries catch up, I don't know that anyone can meet the demand that you always have in the store."

Ventura said Whole Foods is working with a robust network of divers in Marathon, Ponce Inlet, Destin and Pensacola to keep up with shipments. And yes, it takes divers using spears to catch lionfish.

Three or four days each week, Rachel Lynn Bowman, 37, sets out in her boat to perform up to four dives a day in Marathon looking for lionfish.

"A bad day is 20 pounds," she said. "A good day is 200 pounds."

She straps a big air tank on her back and slides into the water near a reef and gets to stabbing. It's more laborious than using fishing traps or nets.

But nets don't work on lionfish because they hang out near coral reefs, Bowman said, and traps are a work-in-progress. That's why the fish is a bit pricey: it's $9.99 a pound at Whole Foods. Once a month it goes on sale for $8.99 a pound, Ventura said.

Bowman has no problem pushing her product. The fish are already sold, she said, before her boat even reaches the dock.

"Whole Foods is just a game changer," Bowman said. "You're putting that fish in the face of people who aren't divers ... Now, going out in a boat without a scuba tank and a spear is like going to the mall without money."

Nalley said what Whole Foods is doing can make a difference. Researchers say it's impossible to reverse what's already been done: the invasive lionfish population is just too big. But Nalley said research shows repeated kills in the same areas can decrease the fish's population and improve the life of native marine life in the surrounding coral reef.

The first lionfish was spotted in Florida waters in 1985. Nalley said researchers "aren't 100 percent sure" how the fish took over nonnative waters, but it was likely a combination of intentional and non-intentional releases. That means someone dumped the fish into the ocean, or a hurricane swept the fish into open water from peoples' aquariums.

The lionfish display caught Linda Fitzgerald's eye on Thursday. She could see the fish's eyes, scales and spikes. It certainly didn't look ready-to-eat. As she peered through her glasses, her short gray hair framing her face, she decided to keep walking.

She can't cook fish. After learning the best way to prepare lionfish is by sautéing them in a pan with lemon, butter and light seasoning, she thought maybe it was worth "experimenting with." The Whole Food staff told her it wouldn't let off a "fishy" smell in her kitchen.

She also knew lionfish were bad for local waters. But it's good to eat and easy to cook? That was new.

So she decided to buy one and try to cook her first fish.

Martinez cut off the spikes, removed the spines and scraped off the scales. Fitzgerald walked out with two small and tidy filets.

Another fish out of the ocean and onto a plate.

Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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