Back in January, my wife and I spent a few days at a resort in southeastern Cuba that specializes in scuba diving. We were a bit alarmed, to say the least, when we noticed our divemaster loading a speargun onto the boat as we prepared for our second dive. He took notice of our concern with a rueful chuckle, explaining the speargun with a single word: Lionfish.
Lionfish are proud hunters of the reefs of the South Pacific, stunning creatures colored in bold stripes, their visages framed by a majesterial mane of long spines. (In fact, we have a 1930s Australian tourism poster mounted in our front hallway that puts the lionfish front and center in its pitch to visit the Great Barrier Reef.)
The problem in Cuba and throughout the Caribbean is that the lionfish are foreigners with no natural predators, and they are voracious hunters of other reef fish — hatchlings in particular — threatening to lay ruin to whole populations of native species. The best guess is that they snuck their way into the Caribbean when an aquarium tank full of them was smashed in a Florida hurricane in 1992. In any case, they have since proliferated throughout the region, becoming particularly prevalent and worrisome in the last couple of years.
On our dive, our guide bagged three lionfish with his speargun, threading them carefully onto a hook at the end of a long line to avoid contact with their sharp spines, which contain a nasty poison. Back at the dive shop, he filleted them expertly using a couple of his metal spears and a dive knife, and we brought the fillets over to the beach restaurant next door to have them breaded and fried for us. The chef dropped a basket of fries into the fryer for good measure, and we gorged ourselves on an unexpected and wholly unique take on the classic fish-and-chips meal.
I can thus report firsthand that lionfish is delicious, a light but meaty whitefish akin to cod or sablefish in flavor and texture. And I can report as well that I probably ate more than my fill. That last piece? It wasn’t for me, you see; it was for the good of the reef.
Turns out that feasting on lionfish isn’t just a quirk of Cuba’s “Special Period.” All across the Caribbean, conservation organizations and resorts have begun to introduce lionfish to their menus and encourage visitors to gorge on the invasive fish. Indeed, the Florida-based Reef Environmental Education Foundation has codified the practice in a new cookbook by the straightforward title of "The Lionfish Cookbook," co-written by chef Tricia Ferguson and REEF operations director Lad Akins.
As the Herald reports, officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are doubtful that human consumption alone will be able to eliminate the lionfish. But they are strongly encouraging the harvest nonetheless, hoping it will keep their numbers small enough to stop them from devastating the juvenile grouper and snapper populations that lionfish feed on.
I’m all for it. It’s rare to find such a win-win conservation opportunity, and there might be no less guilt-inducing act of gluttony anywhere. It’s the polar opposite of going without.
Let’s call it “conservation gastronomy,” and let’s encourage resort operators to push it a step or two further. Why not have great all-you-can-eat lionfish feast nights? Themed menus with discounts for “altruistic” customers who go with the lionfish catch of the day? Spear-and-eat banquets at dive resorts across the Caribbean? Think about it: all things being equal, would you be more inclined to book your next vacation at any old resort, or the one offering the chance to hunt and eat the exotic lionfish to excess in the name of a healthier sea?
I mean, I’ve never fired a gun at an animal in my life, but I have to admit there was an unexpected thrill to watching spearfishing live in the water. And by the third speared lionfish, I felt like I might be up for a shot or two myself. After all, it was for a good cause.
A tip of the hat to my colleagues at the never-not-interesting blog Metafilter for drawing my attention to the lionfish situation.