Eating Poisonous Fish: The Lionfish Meal

Delectable seafood fare or a death wish? We’re bold enough to try it and see.

Pretty or Ugly? It's all perspective.

Pretty or Ugly? It's all perspective.

Caribbean Invasion

What is a lionfish?  To me it looks like a combination of a lobster and a firework explosion with a little candy cane striping for drama. It’s beautiful and ugly at the same time.

Lionfish is an invasive species that are thought to have been introduced to the Atlantic in the 90s by a rupture in a Florida aquarium during a hurricane. They have spikes on their body that are poisonous.  They have no natural predators here in the Caribbean because of their large spines, powerful toxins and feeding form. They are indiscriminate eaters, eating loads of the small beautiful, colorful reef fish that we enjoy seeing when snorkeling and that are a part of the natural ecosystem balance of the reef.  Oh, and they reproduce faster than rabbits, laying over 2 million eggs per year.  So quickly, in fact, that genetic research has shown that the entire population currently invading the Caribbean stems from only 6 individuals.

Their method of attack is particularly unique. Instead of an ambush attack or high-speed chase, lionfish make their presence known and confuse their prey by displaying their beautiful fins like a peacock, slowly dancing towards their prey and then rapidly sucking the prey into their mouths like a vacuum. This technique is so effective because no other predator in the Caribbean uses it — so prey are not adapted to avoid it. –The Nature Conservatory

Eat this fish!

It seems the only way to preserve one of Belize’s best natural environments, the reef – is to eat our way out of the problem.  Many government and environmental organizations encourage fishing and eating the lionfish. It’s not often you hear of eating fish as being sustainable and, in this case, highly advised.

First off, lionfish are safe to eat and contain no venom.  The venom contained in the lionfish is located along its spiny fins, not in the flesh of the fish.  Diners need not worry, but the people catching and cleaning the fish should watch for the poisonous spikes.

This past weekend was the “San Pedro Lionfish Tournament” sponsored by Wahoo’s Lounge (of San Pedro Chicken Drop fame).  Saturday, teams of lionfish hunters competed to see who could catch the most fish and some pretty cool prizes were offered.

Prizes for Lionfish hunters

Prizes for Lionfish hunters

Congratulations to Island Divers Belize for winning the coveted prize of MOST LION FISH caught at 167!  Seriously, that is a lot of spearing.

Speared Lionfish - Photo Credit: Island Divers Belize

Speared Lionfish - Photo Credit: Island Divers Belize

4 ways to eat Lionfish

The following day was the Lionfish Cookoff – where chefs used their culinary creativity to transform these strange looking fish into something delectable.  Four chefs competed, each with a totally unique dish.  We sampled:

  • Lionfish fritters
  • Cassava coated and fried lionfish served with a Christmas rice salad and topped off with a coconut cream sauce
  • Lionfish over pasta with a white wine cream sauce (delicious!)
  • A ginger and rum marinated lionfish served with rum marinated veggies and rice (our favorite!)

We were surprised that no one attempted a lionfish ceviche or lionfish sushi.  I would have loved to try lionfish with lime juice, olive oil and capers, yum!

How do Lionfish taste?

We found it to be delectable seafood fare!  We didn’t know what to expect, but we thought the lionfish was wonderful in every preparation.  The texture (and taste for that matter) was a cross between a fish and really tender chicken.  It wasn’t ‘fishy’ and it’s flesh was creamy and white, almost melt in our mouth.  It is very similar to sea bass.

We were surprised that this ugly (or beautiful fish depending on your perspective) was really, really good.  It’s something that we never thought we’d try – but so glad we did and we encourage more Caribbean restaurants to put it on their menu.

Lionfish T-shirts for sale

Lionfish T-shirts for sale

Lionfish Resources

A quick internet search will find you with plenty of information, but you can start here:

Looking to cook up your own Lionfish?  Check out The Lionfish Hunter Recipe Page for ideas or purchase a Lionfish cookbook from REEF, an organization commited to ocean conservation.

Lionfish Fact Sheet

Lionfish Documentary

Interesting Fact:  The lionfish venom is neutralized in 103 degree F water.

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2 Responses to “Eating Poisonous Fish: The Lionfish Meal”

  1. Jennifer Pearce December 19, 2011 at 9:38 am #

    We learned about these in homeschool a while ago, but missed the part about how they dance for their prey. Very interesting. Well, at least their meals get some entertainment before they are devoured. I am so glad you are eating them! I want to eat some too, especially after reading about how delicious they are.

  2. Lionfish Hunters January 23, 2013 at 3:44 pm #

    Hi King Family,

    Like yours, my family of 4, with daughters 3 and 4 years old, are also nomadic having left the States in October of 2011. We have since been traveling the countries around the Caribbean and in Central America. I am an avid diver and teach when I get the chance.

    During this time, I have also become VERY involved in the lionfish conservation movement having seen first hand the damage these fish are causing local, and often very poor, fishing communities. In the little over two years since your post was written, there have been many significant changes in the lionfish population explosion. Some good, but most not good.

    The good news is that the diving community is really stepping up in the islands and having a tremendous effect on keeping the lionfish numbers down. Also great is that the concerted effort required to educate everyone about this potential disaster is meeting better than expected levels of success. Just in the last year that I have been running the World Lionfish Hunters Association I have watched the comments on our Facebook page turn from one of shock and horror about people removing these fish (i.e. killing the pretty fish) to people expressing support, having an educated understanding of the issue and asking us how they can help. I also see less comments about the lionfish being poisonous to eat and more comments about where to find some fillets and recipes to cook them!

    Contrary to the title of your post, the lionfish is not poisonous, it is venomous; lionfish meat presents no danger whatsoever for consumption.

    My major concern is those areas in Central American, especially Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, that have thousands of miles of Caribbean coastline that are not realistically accessible at all by recreational sport divers. I know the huge numbers of lionfish I am seeing being removed in our last two stops of Portobello, Panama and the keys of Belize where divers are working to eradicate the fish the best we can, but to think that the areas we are diving along this expansive coastline maybe comprises less than 2% of the total length gives me chills.

    I can only imagine their numbers and it is enough to keep me up at night knowing that the reefs and associated fisheries are probably going to suffer under the weight of the damage caused by these fish to the point of collapse. If local fishing grounds no longer produce, then entire communities of people go hungry for a lack of food and a way to support themselves financially.

    Keep eating them! Keep talking about them to everyone who will listen and get involved, even if you are not a diver. The health of our ocean affects every living being on our planet.

    Most importantly, I wanted to say thanks for your article!

    -Scott Harrell

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