NUISANCE Group Educates on Invasive Lionfish
July 27, 2016
(Video courtesy ofÂ Gary's Gulf Dive Charters/ The Lion Fish Mafia)
Sitting in the open-air Flora-BamaÂ Yacht Club in Orange Beach,Â Alabama, Chef Chris Sherrill sets a plate in front of me featuring his latest culinary creation: wild boar and lobster orzo with blackened lionfish and kale and corn salad. He watches closely at myÂ reaction,Â as I tasteÂ lionfish for the first time.
The truth is, while I enjoy the region's fresh snapper and redfish, I never knew that the venomous lionfish wasÂ evenÂ edible.
"Heat during the cooking process kills the venom, so there's no danger from the spines being on your plate," said Sherrill.
Sherrill's creation is more thanÂ justÂ about making impressive dishes '“Â it isÂ part of a larger effortÂ to curtail theÂ environmental and wildlife destructionÂ in the Gulf of MexicoÂ causedÂ by the invasive lionfish.
TheÂ NUISANCE GroupÂ that Sherrill co-founded withÂ Chandra Wright,Â Nature Tourism Specialist forÂ theÂ Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant ConsortiumÂ and Gulf Shores & OrangeÂ Beach Tourism,Â has launchedÂ a two-fold effort in the Gulf Shores regionÂ to reduce the number of invasive species like lionfish and turn them into a viable food source.
NUISANCE stands forÂ NuisanceÂ Underutilized Invasive Sustainable Available Noble Culinary Endeavors.
The group encourages the capture of lionfish while also educating the public about how to use this underutilized resource for food. Their biggest educationÂ effortsÂ include doing public cooking demonstrations and serving up lionfish at local restaurants.
The "Trash Fish" to Table Idea
The conceptÂ of using what's often referred to as "trash fish" as a food sourceÂ often gets puzzled responsesÂ from people who do not understand the scope of the invasiveÂ lionfishÂ problem.
"There are people who don't understand why you would want to kill such a beautiful fish. Once you educate them as to the fact that these fish are non-native species that threaten the populations of the native species that we all love to catch and eat, they usually jump on board with the mission of killing as many of them as possible and are usually curious to at least try eating it," said Chandra Wright.
The reality is that we could never eat the lionfish out of existence.Â The invasive lionfish (PteroisÂ volitansÂ andÂ PteroisÂ miles), withÂ its long venomous mane hasÂ invaded the Gulf of Mexico, CaribbeanÂ and more recently, the Mediterranean.
According toÂ the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, this species hasÂ no predators,Â hasÂ a voracious appetite and the ability to produce 50,000 eggs every three days. The ambush predator is not a picky eater and targets prey like red snapper and grouper that are 2/3 its size.
The Reef Environmental Education Foundation estimates that dense populations of lionfish can reachÂ up toÂ 200 adults perÂ acre,Â consume 460,000 prey fish per acre per year and have the ability toÂ reduce prey populations in the areas they inhabitÂ by 90 percent. With anÂ average lifespanÂ of 30 years, the resultÂ isÂ a staggering wildlife imbalance that gets more critical by the day.
The impact reaches far beyond the Alabama Gulf Shores. The Gulf of Mexico accounts for approximately 70 percent of the nation's oysters, 69 percent of domestic shrimp, and millions of pounds of commercially caught finfish, all of which are threatened by the invasive lionfish, according to Wright.
The idea of tackling the problem from a sustainable standpoint is an idea that started in the Caribbean where chefs experimented with lionfish to controlÂ the depletion of coral reef inhabitants.Â Chef Chris Sherrill thought maybe the idea could work in Alabama too,Â and got to work experimenting with recipes.
"We are trying to educate people about these various species to demonstrate how invasive and nuisance species may get introduced to a non-native environment or spread (accidentally or intentionally), the damage they can cause to the environment, and how to turn them into delicious dishes," said Sherrill.
While this creative conservation concept is catching on, getting a steady supply of lionfish to the chefs and supermarkets willing to serveÂ them is complicated. Lionfish are difficult to catchÂ with rod and reel, so the most effective way to target them is withÂ the few divers who areÂ licensed toÂ spearfishÂ themÂ and sell them. Depth requirements, air consumption and limited bottom times make the task especially difficult.
Nonetheless, the NUISANCE Group is making headway both in educating the public about the problem andÂ adding new dishes toÂ seafood menusÂ inÂ theÂ Gulf Shores and Orange Beach restaurants. The unique menu itemsÂ offerÂ a new culinary experience to visitors.
"When people travel, many times they want a unique, memorable dining experience.Â Our chefs involved with NUISANCE Group can definitely deliver on that and are now planning special NUISANCE dinner events during our slower seasons (fall, winter, early spring)," said KayÂ Maghan, Public Relations Manager for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism.
More Than One Invasive Species
In addition to lionfish,Â the NUISANCE GroupÂ targets other invasive species like tiger shrimp, stingrays, red porgy,Â butterfishÂ and hogÂ snapper. Also on their radar areÂ non-fish nuisance species like nutria and wild boar, oftentimes used in the same recipes.
Sherrill enjoys the culinary challenge of pairing unique ingredients that he knows will enhance the flavor of the mild, flaky white lionfish. For one dish he might use white cheddar popcorn as a crusting ingredient and for another he may incorporate kudzu leaves into homemade pasta noodles.
Today, he opted for a blackened lionfish and balanced theÂ flavors of spicesÂ with the sausage taste of wild boar. WhileÂ I was skepticalÂ at first, as most people are, I was pleasantly surprised as how flavorful the dish was.
Are you ready to give lionfish a go? Be on the lookoutÂ for the species being offeredÂ in specialty groceries in the near future.
Chef Chris Sherrill shares an original lionfish recipe as a way to prepare you own lionfish dish at home.