Lionfish Derby Serves Up Eco-friendly Eats



Over the weekend, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium held the third iteration of its annual Sarasota Lionfish Derby, a three-day event aimed at curtailing the present lionfish invasion in the Gulf of Mexico waters. Lionfish “derbies” where diver teams catch hordes of the spiny, venomous creaturesmay sound like ferocious bloodsport, but they’re actually an effective (and fun) means of practicing environmental responsibility.

The beautiful, barbed beasts may be pleasant to look at, but have the power to decimate local fish populations: lionfish will gorge upon 120 different fish and crustacean varieties and, in critically infested areas like the Gulf Coast of Florida, have eaten their way through up to 90 percent of the local fish population. A native of Indo-Pacific waters, the lionfish has been a persistent pest along the Southeastern Atlantic Coast, in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico for the past 20 years. How this prickly swimmer gained entré to US waters remains unclear, though National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hypothesizes that the present infestation may be the result of American aquarium owners releasing their “pets” into the ocean.

The lionfish’s ravenous appetite, combined with its ability to reproduce quickly, its lack of natural predators in US waters and how difficult it is to procurethe spindly-finned fish are rare hook-and-line catches and must be captured by SCUBA-trained divers using speargunsonly serve to increase its threat to ecosystems like the Sarasota Bay.

This year’s derbya joint effort between Mote and the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF)offered up invasive species management and community education to over 300 attendees with a delectable twist: lionfish dishes prepared by gourmet chefs from Sarasota’s top restaurants. After attending last year’s derby, Steve Phelpsowner and executive chef of Indigenouscalled upon his friends in the restaurant industry to contribute their culinary talents to this year’s event.

Phelpswho prepared a coconut-milk doused ceviche accompanied by Thai green chili sauceis a personal fan of the king of the sea: “It’s a beautiful fish,” he says. “The meat [is] translucent. Just like the best snapper you’ve ever had in your life.” Other takes on lionfish included the Seafood Shack’s BLT (a butter-poached version with fried green tomatoes and hickory bacon), a peach salsa-topped taco from Mattison’s and the Beach House’s tartare accented by Mote-grown sea purslane.

The “invasive” moniker has only served to up the lionfish’s appeal in culinary circles. “They’re definitely trendy,” says Phelpsthe fish are now available in 26 Whole Foods markets across South Florida. “[Lionfish are] really versatile, so now chefs are having a blast with it, knowing that every time you serve it we’re doing something for the environment.”

Pictured: Steve Phelps, owner and executive chef of Indigenous, prepares lionfish ceviche. Photo courtesy of Mote Marine.

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