As Eric Billips reaches the bottom of the reef, 90 feet down, he spots a cloud of minnows around a coral head, and as expected, finds half a dozen lionfish lurking nearby.
They’re beautiful, hovering like little resplendent flowers.
But they’re dangerous, housing 18 venomous spines that repel predators. Billips is able to spear three before the others scoot off and hopes to kill lots more.
An invasive species from the Indo-Pacific, lionfish have no natural enemies in the Atlantic and have spread throughout the Caribbean, including the Florida Keys, decimating juvenile fish populations since arriving in our waters.
“They’re a voracious predator and eat a wide variety of fish, including the young of economically and ecologically important species,” says Lad Akins, the director of special projects for marine conservation group Reef.org. “And they compete with the adults of those species as well.”
Akins added it’s gotten so bad that he’s seen 40 lionfish blanketing a small 30-foot wreck.
Cheer up, there’s something fun and delicious you can do about it.
Billips and his Islamorada Dive Center team (84001 Overseas Highway, Islamorada; 305-664-3483; islamoradadivecenter.com) have created a Lionfish Eradication Course, a guided lionfish hunting program where you get above-water instruction on why lionfish are the enemy, and how to kill them safely on a dive. Then Billips takes you out to prime locations and you kill as many as possible. Once back on land, Billips teaches you how to filet them safely.
On our trip, Billips hauled in 17 fish, and said that he used to be able to get many in shallow water, but they’ve moved deeper, usually around 70 feet or more, possibly as a result of spear fishing pressure.
What is it like to be stung?
“It hurt so bad I had to bite down on my wallet,” he says, and points out that you can diffuse the venom with hot water.
Once back at the dock, Billips instructs the students on exactly where those 18 venomous spines are, how to remove them, and then how to filet the fish. You end up with a very clean, white filet that’s just the right size for sautéing, with a texture that’s more solid than flaky.
“It’s close to hogfish [one of the most coveted fish in the Keys],” Billips says of the taste and texture. Lionfish also tend to be low in heavy metals, as they eat low on the food chain, and are high in omega-3 fatty acids.
While cleaning, Billips pulls 15 baby fish from the belly of one lionfish, “and that’s just what he ate in the last two hours,” he says, noting how much damage they can do to important local reef species. As Billips tosses the remains into the water, the tarpon that normally gobble up scraps don’t touch the lionfish carcasses. “It’s amazing,” Billips says. “I think maybe they smell the venom.”
Once you have your filets there are several restaurants in Islamorada who run “hook and cook” programs, preparing the fish for you for $15 to $20. Chef Dario Olivera at Oltremare Ristorante (80001 Overseas Highway, Islamorada; 305-664-0073; oltremareristorante.com) might do anything from deep-frying it with a poblano vinaigrette, to a papillote preparation where the fish is baked in paper with herbs. Shula’s 2 (4001 Overseas Highway, Islamorada; 305-664-5300; donshula.com/shulas-2-islamorada) will pan sear it, grill it or blacken it, sauce it up with a beurre blanc or a sweet chili soy glaze, and throw in a salad, two sides, and a slice of Key lime pie. Chef Michael’s (81671 Overseas Highway, Islamorada; 305-664-0640;foodtotalkabout.com) does a gorgeous deep-fried, whole-fish preparation, or can whip the filets up into any of their daily preparations, including Pontchartrain (lightly blackened with crawfish, shrimp, and a Creole cream), or Mixed Nuts (crusted with pistachio, cashew and macadamia, with a mango sauce). In fact, chef Jacques Rozek at Chef Michael’s says he now prefers it to hogfish.
If you’re not quite down for a SCUBA adventure, Chef Michael’s serves lionfish as a special from time to time, based on their relationships with local divers, and Area 31 in Miami (EPIC Hotel, 270 Biscayne Boulevard Way; 305-424-5234; area31restaurant.com) sources it by working with lobster boat captains who often find lionfish in their traps.
Once you get the hang of spearfishing, you can enter lionfish derbies produced by Reef.org, and delve into lionfish cuisine via the 45 recipes in their aptly named The Lionfish Cookbook. Akins says his favorite preparation is ceviche.
“Try using a Bahamian conch recipe and you’ll be happy.”