Lovely Lionfish

Sourcing this highly sustainable and delicious fish helps the environment, fisheries, chefs and beyond

By Chef Hari Pulapaka, PhD, WCMC, CEC

If you’ve never heard of lionfish, now’s the time to find out a little more. Lionfish is a highly-invasive species that threatens native fish populations and coral reefs along the Atlantic coast. Since lionfish has few to no natural predators, its populations are growing unchecked. That’s why there are little to no restrictions when it comes to catching this wild species. It is literally open season when it comes to lionfish, all year round.

Lionfish must be hand-caught — most of the time by divers who use spears. This method of fishing is better than the trawling method, which can lead to wasteful bycatch and destroy marine ecosystems. That’s also why lionfish gets a green light from aquariums and sustainability standards, including Smart Catch, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification program and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.

The fish is also tasty and delicious as heck.

I describe lionfish as a mild, semi-flaky whitefish that’s similar to snapper but typically smaller in size and with a more buttery flavor. Lionfish cooks fast, so I like to use it for pan-roasted applications and even in ceviche. The nice thing about lionfish is that it has a slightly firmer texture than snapper and other whitefish so it doesn’t disintegrate when you cook it on high heat. The meatier, buttery flavor of lionfish comes from what it eats. A natural predator, lionfish feast on young snapper and grouper and other seafood highly prized for their flavor, like lobster and crab. As a result, the flavor of lionfish is clean, meaty and tasty.

Diners are becoming more curious about lionfish, especially as more chefs serve it on their menus. Doing so can really intrigue guests because you’re putting something on their plate that they might not have tried.

Place-based sustainability is the notion that the journey of an ingredient through a food system helps (or doesn’t hurt) the environment. A sustainability standard is measured against a multi-layered set of criteria, which can include helping fisheries and local economies benefit. Place-based sustainability focuses on greater equity among diverse stakeholders and is more flexible than other sustainability standards. Sourcing lionfish helps the environment because it takes an invasive species out of the water. It also helps the divers who catch the fish, the chefs who menu the fish, the fisheries that now have another sellable product and the community at large. With place-based sustainability, everything that is connected is considered.

Lionfish can sometimes cost a bit more because of both the intense labor that’s required to source it and how sensitive availability is to weather conditions. But if you can snag some for a decent price, you can charge a bit more for the delicacy — and don’t forget to educate your guests about why it’s good to consume it.

If you live and work in the Southeast, and especially in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida, you might have an easier time sourcing lionfish. If you’re further away, check with your preferred seafood supplier to see what might be available. Trust me, it’s worth the effort.