A blessing from the lionfish curse
In one breath, Laura Owen describes the spiny, venomous lionfish as “nasty little devils” and “stunningly gorgeous and beautiful.”
In the next breath she talks about how delicious they taste, and how she hopes to make them a regular special on her menu over at CJ’s on the Bay restaurant.
It’s now well-known that the fish are a scourge in the Gulf, in the Caribbean and along the Eastern seaboard because of their voracious eating habits and lack of natural predators, and that the State of Florida – for one – places no bag limits on them.
“The problem is that they don’t really respond well to hook and line,” says Owen, “so they have to be netted or speared.”
Which makes them relatively in short supply and – according to the laws of supply and demand – pricey to put on the table. But, she says, there’s ever increasing awareness of the need to catch them – and in turn the possibility of lucrative hauls by dedicated divers.
“We have to be the natural predators to get them out of our waters,” she says simply.
Satisfying diners, raising awareness
Owen has just contributed to a Reef.org lionfish cookbook aimed at satisfying diners as well as raising even more awareness to the threat of the fish, which devour juvenile snapper, grouper, lobster and shrimp at will.
“They like everything we like,” Owen says, “so the bonus is that because they have such a great diet, they taste delicious themselves.”
She describes that taste as mild and a little sweet, with the flesh white and flaky.
Owen’s recipe is “Lionfish with Salsa Verde,” in which she lightly flash fries the filets in cornmeal flour and serves with a mix of fresh herbs like parsley, basil, tarragon, dill, chives, diced shallots, olive oil and lemon juice. The fish for her recipe were specially caught and supplied by Capt. Jeff Dawson of Scuba Marco. And yes, he speared them right off the coast of Marco.
Depending on those supply and demand laws, Owen says she’d consider serving the delicacy as a loss leader simply to further the cause. A few years ago, she says, the fish was available to about $6 a pound, but it now hovers around $20.
Her other plans are to stage a “lionfish awareness dinner” if supply permits. Besides local diners, she would invite Reef.org representatives to give updates on the fish.
Lionfish are a popular ornamental aquarium fish that were likely released on purpose when people no longer wanted them as aquarium pets, according to NOAA information. The swift and warm Gulf Stream, which likely transported buoyant lionfish eggs and larvae from Florida northward, helped the lionfish's Atlantic journey.
The book is in its second addition, and is available at Reef.org for $16, 95.