Photograph by Mauricio Handler, Nat Geo Image Collection
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If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em. A diver off the coast of the Dominican Republic spears a lionfish, an invasive species from the Pacific.
Photograph by Mauricio Handler, Nat Geo Image Collection

Lionfish and Friends: How Chefs Tackle Invasive Fish

The pretty ones get all the attention—even when it comes to invasive species. The eye-catching but dangerous lionfish has been grabbing headlines for years. However, there are plenty of less attractive invasive species decimating local marine ecosystems in the U.S. and other parts of the world. And chefs are doing their part to draw attention to the problem.

Whiskered, dull-eyed blue catfish are native to the Ohio and Mississippi river basins, but were introduced to Virginia’s James, Rappahannock and York Rivers in the 1960s as an alternative catch for recreational fisherman. The plan backfired. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, which focuses on restoration and protection of the region, blue catfish now account for nearly 75 percent of the volume of fish in the river.

These predators can live for more than 20 years and grow to over 100 pounds. Their devastatingly diverse diet includes blue crabs, eels, freshwater mussels and lots of fish, such as rockfish, shad and perch. A flier from Jessup, Maryland-based seafood supplier Congressional Seafood to its clients describes them as “apex predators just like sharks, but they reproduce like rabbits.”

David Guas, owner of the New Orleans-themed Bayou Bakery in the metro Washington, D.C. area, was persuaded to put the fish on his menu six months ago in an effort to help bring down their numbers. He incorporated the blue catfish as a part of a spicy stew served over rice. He was surprised the first time he tasted the white, flaky meat. “It’s not the kind of catfish I was raised on Louisiana,” he says. “These fish are eating rockfish and blue crabs, so that’s what it tastes like. And it’s firmer than farm-raised catfish.”

But there need to be a lot more chefs like Guas in order to beat back these invasive hordes. Currently, Congressional Seafood estimates only three million pounds of blue catfish are caught annually. They estimate that they would need to harvest ten times that amount—30 million pounds—to make a dent in the infestation.

Though more chefs are actively incorporating invasive marine species into their menus, they are still outliers in the culinary community. Usually, they have to highlight the fear factor to entice guests to sample more unconventional proteins. For example, Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut, has a special menu dedicated to invasive species, including the decidedly unattractive cannonball jellyfish.

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A cannonball jellyfish, washed up on the beach, St. George Island State Park, Florida. Photograph by NG Creative

There are even events dedicated to eradicating these invaders. The annual Potomac Snakehead Tournament in Marbury, Maryland challenges anglers to catch the largest snakehead, a toothy spotted beast of a fish. In August, the Oregon-based Institute for Applied Ecology will host the 4th Annual Eradication by Mastication cook-off, which in years past has found chefs cooking with Asian carp—an aggressive invasive species that’s now been spotted in nearly 30 states. (The carp also have eyes low on their head, giving them a somewhat dimwitted appearance.)

Invasive fish aren’t solely a domestic issue. Louisiana crayfish are becoming an increasing problem across Africa and Amazonian pacu were found off the coast of Denmark in 2013.

And of course, there’s the show-stealing lionfish, the proverbial poster child of the invasive fish problem, which continues its reign of terror. In 2010, executive chef Thomas Tennant of Michael’s Genuine at Camana Bay in the Cayman Islands learned that lionfish were becoming a problem around Grand Cayman Island. The invasive species had recently moved into the region and were wreaking havoc. “They were eating all the juvenile fish off the reef and nothing was eating them,” he says. “The whole marine ecosystem relies on balance.”

Like a growing cadre of chefs, he decided to tackle the problem by turning the dangerous-sounding fish into a delicacy at the restaurant. Unfortunately for the chefs, the fish are usually only six to eight inches long with an average weight of one pound. Once fileted, each fish usually yields less than half a pound of meat with the skin on. Determined to pursue the endeavor, Tennant instituted a “Big, small, we’ll buy them all policy” to encourage local divers and fishermen to hunt the lionfish.

There was also the matter of convincing his diners to eat the ferociously named fish. Many thought it was similar to pufferfish, whose flesh can be lethal if it’s not prepared properly. But venom only coats the exterior spines of the lionfish. As long as they’re removed, the meat itself can’t pose a threat to a diner. Servers emphasized this point, while talking up the fish’s white flaky flesh, which is similar to a firm halibut.

Tennant introduced lionfish in a Caribbean-inspired coconut broth chowder packed with chunks of locally grown callaloo greens, pumpkin and breadfruit. “I wanted it to be something familiar to diners and full of ingredients they were comfortable with,” he says.

It took several months, but guests finally grew to appreciate the invasive species. These days, he utilizes lionfish in ceviche and a crispy fish sandwich slathered with scotch bonnet aioli and guacamole.

His crusade has had an unintended consequence. Lionfish has become so popular with diners that other restaurants on the island started importing cheaper lionfish filets from Honduras. “It’s great, because they’re tackling an issue that’s Caribbean-wide now,” says Tennant, who continues to use only locally caught lionfish. “However, that discourages divers here to go hunt the fish, so it doesn’t help with our problem.”

Tennant is not the only islander tackling lionfish. At the Grace Bay Club in Turks and Caicos, chef Wolfgang von Wieser has started featuring the invasive species on his menu because the interlopers began to devastate endemic species, while chef Renee of Belcampo Belize in Punto Gorda personally spears lionfish to serve in ceviche and curries.

Rangers at Roatan Marine Park off the coast of Honduras are going one step further—they’re trying to teach sharks to eat the foreign invaders.

While it’s unlikely that eating invasive species will entirely eliminate the problem, it does help raise awareness, one bite at a time.

Nevin Martell is a freelance writer and the author of several books, including his recent memoir, Freak Show Without a Tent. Follow him on Twitter @nevinmartell.