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Emory study looks at a new food — lionfish


Let’s get the negatives out of the way first.

Don’t go after the lionfish with a hook and worm. Pterois volitans is harder to catch than that; try a spear instead. And if you do get one, stay away from those spines: get poinked with one of those and you’re headed to the hospital.

If you’ve made it that far — got the fish, avoided the venomous spines — prepare to repeat the process. If you want a platter of lionfish, it often takes a few to fill your stomach.

And the upside is…?

Lionfish broils beautifully. Fried, it’s fine. Sprinkle with some fresh lemon or toss a glob of tartar sauce on it. Lionfish is tasty between two pieces of bread or laid out on a platter. It is a tasty fish.

An unwanted one, too. The lionfish is an invasive species, preying on marine life from North Carolina through Georgia and down to South America. If unchecked, scientists say, the lionfish could have a devastating impact on other fisheries.

“It’s here now,” said Tracy Yandle, an environmental studies professor at Emory University. “And there are no natural predators to it.”

Perhaps the best thing to do: attack the lionfish with another species — Homo sapiens.

Yandle recently received a $300,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study the possibility of creating a market for lionfish. The study will focus on the U.S. Virgin Islands, one of the areas where the brightly colored, spiny creature is flourishing. What research there determines could have implications in other areas where the lionfish is not welcome.

There are challenges to making the fish attractive as a seafood, Yandle said. Lionfish aren’t very big — they only grown about 15 inches long — meaning they wouldn’t yield as much meat as, say, a grouper.

Equally troublesome: its appearance. People aren’t inclined to identify it as food, she said.

“People say, ‘Oh, what a beautiful fish!’” Yandle said. “I want to change that so people say, ‘Evil’ and ‘tasty.’”

Tasty? Think of it as a flounder dressed as a punk rocker — under all that flash is flesh that’s not too strong.

“In some ways, it’s an ideal fish for the American market,” Yandle said. “We don’t like our fish to takes like fish.”

“Problem forever”

The fish is native to the western Pacific, a world away from here. The first, probably released from home aquariums, first turned up off the coast of Florida in the mid-1980s. They found the temperate, salty waters of Florida perfect to grow and reproduce. In time, fishermen began reporting the appearance of reddish fish with a mane of venomous spines.

Federal studies show the fish has moved steadily north, most likely following the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream. It’s been found in shallow waters and in depths reaching 1,000 feet.

In its ramblings, the fish has encountered a smorgasbord, with an added bonus: Fish that might be predators, such as barracuda or grouper, don’t recognize the lionfish as a food source. The lionfish, in contrast, recognizes just about everything as edible.

Because they aren’t picky eaters, lionfish hurt fish populations, as well as their environment. For example, they devour fish that feed off algae on reefs; removing them means the algae no longer is in check, which can have serious consequences for reefs.

The lionfish presents a unique problem for scientists, fishermen and others involved in southeastern fisheries, said James Morris, a NOAA marine biologist. It’s the first species to invade the waters off southern shorelines, Morris said.

The fish worries Morris, whose offices are in Beaufort, N.C., a shore town about 40 miles from the Gulf Stream. He’s not sure if anything can stop it. “It could be a problem forever,” he said.

‘They’re delicious”

Scott Simpson was pleased. The executive chef of The Depot, a recently opened restaurant in Auburn, got some lionfish from his suppliers. He alerted some regulars: Lionfish tonight.

That evening, Nov. 18, The Depot featured lionfish and chips — the fish battered and fried, served with a lemon gremolata tartar sauce, complemented by home-made french fries. Twenty-four bucks a pop. The restaurant ran out.

For Simpson, serving lionfish is a decision that makes ecological and economic sense. He’s plied his trade in Caribbean nations, where people routinely eat lionfish. Simpson, a co-owner of the restaurant, told his staff to make sure customers understand that ordering lionfish is a tasty way to help the environment.

“We tell our guests that they’re delicious,” he said.

Jennifer Sweeney Tookes can attest to that. An anthropology professor who helped Yandle secure the grant, Tookes tasted the fish during a visit to the Virgin Islands. The fish, she said, is worth trying — a point she hopes to make to fishermen, market owners and consumers in the Caribbean country.

In July, she’ll travel to the U.S. Virgin Islands with an assistant to collect information about the fish, as well as those who catch and eat them. She hopes to have her end of the study complete by late next year.

Tookes, who recently took an assistant professorship at Georgia Southern University, hopes her findings in the Caribbean may apply in the United States, too.

“I would encourage people to seek it out,” she said. “Let’s seek the heck out of the lionfish — out of the Caribbean and out of the gulf.”


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