Whole Foods vs. the Lionfish: Species control via fine dining

Whole Foods vs. the Lionfish: Species control via fine dining

If you cant beat ‘em, eat ‘em. Whole Foods offers Florida shoppers fresh filet of lionfish, a dangerously invasive species posing a threat to Atlantic fish, Caribbean reefs.

The lionfish. Beautiful in your acquarium, dangerously invasive in the Atlantic. (Image via Wikipedia entry on the lionfish, Pterois antennata)

WASHINGTON, May 26, 2016 – Whole Foods, the expensive but still-trendy natural and organic foods grocery chain has generally been profitable over the years by offering pricey foods that taste good with perhaps an even more important benefit. Purchasing Whole Foods offerings signal with brilliant clarity the obvious eco-virtues of all who choose to shop there.

But Whole Foods’ latest menu pick—lionfish fillets—ups the ante considerably. Now available in 26 Florida Whole Foods stores, this delectable new seafood item encourages not only healthy fine dining. It may help reduce the population of a dangerously invasive non-native species of fish that has threatened not only to decimate the population of commercial and sport fishing species native to Florida and Caribbean Atlantic waters, but to destroy delicate coral reef populations as well. Great taste, superior nutrition and saving the planet: What’s not to love?

How did this all come about?

Lionfish. (Via Wikipedia entry on Lionfish)
Lionfish. (Via Wikipedia entry on Lionfish)

Over the years, many U.S. salt-water aquarium hobbyists came to prize the lionfish as a dramatically showy species to display and enjoy in large tanks decorated to simulate colorful ocean reefs. The lionfish— outrageously patterned in contrasting, colorful stripes and festooned with an exotic array of large, flowing fins and dramatic dorsal spines—is in some ways the perfect occupant for such artificial yet lifelike environments.

However, this is a hobby-fish that must be treated with considerable care. Its 18 dorsal spines are tipped with venomous stingers that make short work of lionfish prey. These formidable spines defend the fish from most predators. While not generally regarded as life threatening to humans, contact with those spines can still result in excruciating pain and even hospitalization for the unwary.

Lionfish (Pterois antennata) are actually native only to the Indo-Pacific seas. Until relatively recently, they were never seen in the Atlantic. Unfortunately, however, for native Atlantic fish and reef populations ranging from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to deep in the Caribbean, lionfish have invaded locally en masse in recent years, reproducing like sea rabbits in an environment that has no effective predators to counter their attack, allowing them to multiply virtually unchecked.

How did the lionfish get here, let alone in such large numbers?

It’s thought that perhaps one or more thoughtless hobbyists might have released some of these fish into the Atlantic when they grew too large to be comfortably ensconced in a home aquarium. (Or when they devoured the entire population of a mixed tank.) Whatever the case, devoid of natural predators in the Atlantic from the time of its earliest detection in the Atlantic in 1985, the lionfish soon discovered that warm Atlantic waters were a smorgasbord of tasty creatures, none of which could prevail against the fish’s remarkably poisonous arsenal of needle-tipped spines.

This lethal species’ spread was so rapid and unexpected, and the carnage among native marine species soon proved so significant that marine biologists, ecologists and sports and commercial fishermen alike quickly became alarmed at the potential consequences of this unchecked invasion.

Fortuitously, somewhere along the line in the search for an effective aquatic predator to the lionfish, enterprising individuals discovered something important: Lionfish fillets are very tasty. Which means that the ultimate apex predator for those fast-multiplying lionfish may very well be Homo sapiens.

The downside to this discovery is the fact that, given their quickness, elusiveness and those poisonous spines, neither individuals nor the fishing industry have discovered an effective way to fish the species on a truly commercial scale.

Currently, the most efficient way to bag lionfish in an numbers is for teams of divers to enter lionfish-rich waters and spearfish them in relatively large numbers. Gaining access to such catches, a number of Florida and Caribbean restaurants have begun to offer lionfish dishes on their menus in recent years, establishing a decent if spotty market for these more or less freelance catches.

For once neither the Federal nor the Florida state governments are getting in the way of this homegrown effort by promulgating needless regulations regarding this invasive species. Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission currently imposes no recreational or commercial limits on lionfish. In fact, the Commission is encouraging human predators to have a go at it whether by spearfishing, individually netting or even hooking the species to their hearts’ content.

Now, however, Florida’s informal lionfish control efforts may be getting a big commercial boost with the news that Whole Foods is putting lionfish fillets on the grocery lists of those 26 Florida stores. According to South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel, the stores

“… will begin selling the whole delicate white fish for $8.99 a pound through May 31. The fish will be priced at $9.99 per pound starting June 1.”

But wait? Aren’t these fish poisonous? Not to worry. According to the Sun-Sentinel (and later confirmed by a short report in the Orlando Weekly),

“The economically-priced fish, which has 18 venomous spines, is safe to consume once the spines have been removed. ‘Once caught and placed on ice, the lionfish physically cannot release venom from the gland, ensuring safe consumption for shoppers,’ says [a Whole Foods press] release. The flesh is not poisonous.

“The grocer’s seafood staff received special training to properly remove the spines, according to the release.”

But divers and spearfishers hunting for lionfish still need to be cautious, notes David Kerstetter, an assistant professor at the Halmos College of Natural Sciences & Oceanography, who teaches at Nova Southeastern University. Kerstetter told the Sun-Sentinel that

“‘While lionfish fillets are completely safe to eat, even dead and on ice the glands in the spines still have venom… Recreational divers and fishers should remember that the safest way to handle any dead lionfish is to simply cut off the spines altogether.’”

While they don’t taste like chicken, the “red, brown and white striped lionfish is similar to halibut or grouper and can be prepared like any other fish.”

Photo at recent Potomac River area Snakefish tournament. (Photo via cited NatGeo article on the snakefish invasion)
Photo at recent Potomac River area Snakefish tournament. (Photo via cited NatGeo article on the snakefish invasion)

Florida’s informal but increasingly effective approach to controlling this invasive species is, in a way, similar to efforts in the DC-Metro area, particularly in Maryland, to push back against the snakefish, a non-native freshwater super-predator fish.

Popularly dubbed here as the “Frankenfish,” the snakefish began to multiply several years ago in the Potomac River basin due to what may have been an illegal, ritual introduction of the species into the Anacostia River, which feeds into the Potomac as it flows through the District of Columbia.

Here, anglers, whether individually or in locally sponsored Frankenfish fishing contests, are going after the snakefish, having achieved some notable success in keeping the population down since it was first discovered in area waters in 2002.

Even better news: Like the lionfish, DC-area snakefish are said to be mighty tasty.

Caught snakehead. (Screen capture of NatGeo video in cited article)
Caught snakehead. (Screen capture of NatGeo video in cited article)
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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17