(Video courtesy of Gary's Gulf Dive Charters/ The Lion Fish Mafia)
Sitting in the open-air Flora-Bama Yacht Club in Orange Beach, 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 my reaction, as I taste 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 was even 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 than just about making impressive dishes — it is part of a larger effort to curtail the environmental and wildlife destruction in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the invasive lionfish.
The NUISANCE Group that Sherrill co-founded with Chandra Wright, Nature Tourism Specialist for the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium and Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, has launched a two-fold effort in the Gulf Shores region to reduce the number of invasive species like lionfish and turn them into a viable food source.
NUISANCE stands for Nuisance 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 education efforts include doing public cooking demonstrations and serving up lionfish at local restaurants.
The "Trash Fish" to Table Idea
The concept of using what's often referred to as "trash fish" as a food source often gets puzzled responses from people who do not understand the scope of the invasive lionfish 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. The invasive lionfish (Pterois volitans and Pterois miles), with its long venomous mane has invaded the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean and more recently, the Mediterranean.
According to the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, this species has no predators, has 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 reach up to 200 adults per acre, consume 460,000 prey fish per acre per year and have the ability to reduce prey populations in the areas they inhabit by 90 percent. With an average lifespan of 30 years, the result is 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 control the depletion of coral reef inhabitants. Chef Chris Sherrill thought maybe the idea could work in Alabama too, 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 serve them is complicated. Lionfish are difficult to catch with rod and reel, so the most effective way to target them is with the few divers who are licensed to spearfish them 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 and adding new dishes to seafood menus in the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach restaurants. The unique menu items offer a new culinary experience to visitors.
"When people travel, many times they want a unique, memorable dining experience. 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 Kay Maghan, Public Relations Manager for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism.
More Than One Invasive Species
In addition to lionfish, the NUISANCE Group targets other invasive species like tiger shrimp, stingrays, red porgy, butterfish and hog snapper. Also on their radar are 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 the flavors of spices with the sausage taste of wild boar. While I was skeptical 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 lookout for the species being offered 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.