The fish that once seemed untouchable with its defensive spines, has now proven conquerable, quickly whipped up into a delicious dish, the lionfish could easily become the seafood of choice for many a discerning palate.
With endless methods of preparation, and fast becoming the main ingredient in many exotic dishes, the lionfish has been dubbed “the Caribbean’s new delicacy” in the Lionfish Cookbook produced by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, a non-profit marine conservation organisation founded in 1990 to engage volunteers in the preservation of marine systems.
Some of the mouthwatering recipes featured in the book, include: Spicy Lionfish Rosti, Lionfish Veracruz, Sweet Potato Encrusted Lionfish, Coconut Panko Lionfish with Mango Curry Sauce, Beer Battered Lionfish, and Mango Salsa Lionfish.
The book is a result of ongoing efforts throughout the Caribbean and the United States to address the rapid invasion of the lionfish, a voracious “sit‐and‐wait” predator, capable of consuming large quantities of fish and shellfish daily and can negatively impact the fish stocks in a country. One lionfish can eat more than 30,000 juvenile fish per year.
A member of the Scorpionfish family, the lionfish, which has very few natural predators, has the ability to reproduce year round in the Caribbean (every four days). A female lionfish is capable of producing two million eggs each year.
A growing number of the species has been spotted in Jamaican waters and marine scientists have expressed concern that the lionfish will cause significant impact to marine life, especially commercially important fish and crustacean species.
Since it was recognised that a population explosion of the lionfish was devastating the Jamaican reefs and drastically reducing the abundance of coral reef fish, the Government has been proactively working to employ methods to control the impact of the fish. One strategy employed was embarking on a National Lionfish Project, which among other things, involves a public awareness campaign that encourages the catching and consumption of lionfish.
Skeptics speak of the species venomous spines, used purely for defense, which are painful to humans if stung, but with proper handling and preparation, one has little to worry about as this sting is not likely to be fatal.
National Lionfish Project Lead, Dr. Dayne Buddo, speaking recently at the launch of the Scotiabank Group’s lionfish campaign at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Port Royal Marine Laboratory and Biodiversity Centre in Kingston, said that one of the hurdles is to get people to believe that the lionfish is not poisonous and that while it has venomous spines, it is easy to handle and prepare for consumption.
According to a brochure on the species, to properly handle the lionfish, persons need to wear heavy gloves to prevent being stung by the spines. To remove spines, start by cutting above or into the flesh along each side of the row of spines moving from the tail to the head.
Mr. Buddo explained that eating the fish has been proving an effective method of controlling the impact of the fish on marine life, noting that under the project, “we will be enhancing over-exploitation of lionfish, not just consuming the adults, but consuming, more importantly, the juvenile lionfish before they start reproducing”.
According to Chief Executive Officer of Rainforest Seafoods, Brian Jardim, who also spoke at the campaign launch, the lionfish is a natural, flakey mild-white fish which is very easy to work with in soups, kebab, fillets, and several other dishes.
“Hopefully, one day we’ll see it in our local fast foods, or incorporated in fish sandwiches, or fish and chips meals. It’s such an easy-to-work, malleable white fish product that we’re very excited about it. The flavour is very grouper-like, which is a favoured high-value taste,” he said, noting that the entity intended to begin selling and distributing lionfish.
With the launch of its ‘Scotia Goes Green On Lion Fish: Let’s Eat Them to Beat Them’ campaign, the Scotiabank Group has also joined the call for consumption of the fish as an effective method to control the devastating impact of the invasive species on marine life.
Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Donovan Stanberry, who was also at the launch, said the Ministry fully supported eating the fish, and saluted the “foresight and the vision and the corporate citizen spirit of the Scotiabank Group in lending a hand to the research being done by the UWI on the lionfish".
In addition to the promotion of the consumption of the lionfish, the project, which is being led by the UWI through the Marine Invasive Species Lab within the Discovery Bay Marine Lab, aims to sensitise, educate, and train Jamaicans, particularly fisher folk, about this invasive species.
Specifically, it sets out to train Jamaican fisher folk in the safe handling and cleaning of the lionfish; conduct scientific research to guide the management of the species; help create a market for this species thereby providing economic benefit for fishermen; and help to control the lionfish invasion and preserve Jamaica’s fisheries by killing the lionfish when encountered.
Mr. Buddo, who is also Lecturer and Academic Coordinator, UWI Discovery Bay Marine Laboratory in St. Ann, further admitted that while it is impossible to get rid of the fish. “One thing we can surely do is to control the numbers and have some handle on the impact that this lionfish is creating,” noting that the UWI as well as other regional and international organisations “are working very hard to find ways of attacking this lionfish,” he said.
He said that Jamaica has been invaded by a fish “we really don’t know much about” and the UWI’s research is to understand “exactly what’s happening and where it is vulnerable to attack this enemy”. Research by the UWI Discovery Bay Marine Lab has shown that over 15 different species have been found in the stomach of the lionfish, including numerous species of commercial value (such as lobsters).
Currently at the pilot phase, the National Lionfish Project, which is being administered by the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), is an initiative of the Lionfish Subcommittee which comprises the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, NEPA, Food for the Poor, the UWI, Jamaica Fishermen Co-op Union, the Culinary Federation of Jamaica, the Fisheries Advisory Board, Improving Jamaica’s Agricultural Productivity Project, the Jamaica Tourist Board, and the Tourism Product Development Company.
Through its research based approach, the project aims to track the invasion through underwater surveys island-wide; document the impacts through predation of native fish; design a trap capable of catching lionfish; and formulate a management plan for Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean.
It is part of a larger regional project entitled: ‘Mitigating the Threat of Invasive Alien Species in the Insular Caribbean (MTIASIC)’, which is funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It seeks to strengthen partnerships among government and non‐governmental agencies in Jamaica, as well as to promote regional co-operation.
Native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, it has been speculated that the lionfish (Pterois volitans and Pterois miles) was introduced into the warmer coral regions of the Eastern Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea during the 1990s when they escaped from an aquarium in South Florida, which was damaged during the passage of Hurricane Andrew.
By Alecia Smith-Edwards, JIS Reporter