ST. PETE BEACH — They're wonderfully delicious, with a light, clean, natural flavor that almost tastes buttery.
That's the main reason why lionfish will appear occasionally on the menu when the new RumFish Bar & Grill opens in May at the Guy Harvey Outpost resort.
“The filets are beautiful,” Harvey said during a recent construction tour. “The meat is almost transparent with the skin off.”
A more important reason for making them a dinner special: Lionfish also are venomous, and there are way too many of them in tropical waters.
Normally, the voracious human appetite for seafood would take care of the exploding population of spiny-finned reef monsters. But the invasive species native to the Indian and Pacific oceans are difficult to catch amid the craggy protection of underwater reefs. Lobster fishermen occasionally snare one in a lobster pot — lionfish love to eat lobster eggs — but most must be speared individually by divers.
Once caught, the prickly menaces are tricky for humans to handle without coming in contact with 18 needle-like dorsal fins that act as a defense against predators. Each female lionfish swimming throughout the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Keys and in the Gulf Stream produces 30,000 eggs every four or five days.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials today in Tallahassee will discuss three regulation changes so that Florida can declare open-season on the underwater pests.
Proposed rule revisions would allow divers using re-breathing scuba gear to harvest lionfish. Second, the FWC's executive director would be given power to approve lionfish-harvesting tournaments in areas where spearfishing is prohibited. And a new rule would prohibit lionfish from being imported into Florida.
Marine biologists say they believe the lionfish infestation began after someone in Miami released one into the wild from a home aquarium in the early 1980s. The first Florida sighting came in 1985 in Dania Beach, near Fort Lauderdale. The lionfish population quickly spread to the Bahamas and the rest of the Caribbean during the 2000s. Their range now extends north to Bermuda and south to the northern coast of South America.
Eradication efforts include an organized annual lionfish derby held in Key Largo to the publication of “The Lionfish Cookbook” years ago by author Tricia Ferguson and Lad Akins of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation. (Lionfish Nachos, anyone?)
In 2013, the FWC hosted a Lionfish Summit in Cocoa Beach to develop a framework for scientists and wildlife managers to collaborate on strategies for lionfish control, and identify research gaps. The FWC and the Wildlife Foundation of Florida also hosted a lionfish tasting to develop a food market and encourage participants to view lionfish as a food fish by offering recipe ideas.
State officials now are concerned the infestation is depleting valuable grouper, snapper and lobster fisheries that generate revenue in Florida.
Complete eradication is unlikely, FWC officials say. Even if all shallow-water lionfish were depleted, those living in water too deep for divers can repopulate an area quickly.
Red lionfish and their cousins, the flamboyantly named devil firefish, prey upon native fish and invertebrates, and therefore represent a significant threat to native species and ecosystems. A lionfish often will deploy its feathery pectoral fins to herd small fish into a small space where it can more easily swallow them.
The fish show up routinely in lobster traps, said Sean Morton, superintendent of NOAA's Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
“They'll eat juvenile fish,” Morton said. “They'll go after lobster eggs. We find juvenile snappers, groupers, parrot fish, wrasses, just about anything in their stomachs.”
Even worse, juvenile reef fish natural to the environment don't recognize lionfish as a threat, so they don't try to evade this oncoming, strange-looking object, Harvey said.
“They go, 'Wow!' and then, boom, they're gone,” he said.
Starting in May, customers at Harvey's RumFish Grill & Bar in St. Pete Beach will come face to face with live lionfish swimming in a 1,000-gallon tank in the dining room. They will be a side attraction, though. Along the back wall, the restaurant's showpiece will be a 33,500-gallon aquarium built by Wayde King and Brett Raymer of Animal Planet's hit series “Tanked.”
Along with ahi tacos, Caribbean ceviche and pan-seared Gulf-caught grouper picatta, RumFish chef Aaron Schwietzer is expected to include lionfish whenever it becomes available.
Making it a menu fixture year-round is difficult, because restaurants never know when they will be getting a supply. At The Fish House Encore in Key Largo, lionfish is popular, especially when fried whole and served with garlic pesto and tartar sauce, operations manager Damian Groark said.
“People come in and request it,” Groark said.
Last year, the restaurant sold about 6,000 pounds during the 2012-2013 lobster season, which annually runs from August through March. Lobster fishermen sell lionfish as a bycatch. As lobsters begin showing up, lionfish can be bought at certain fish houses for about $6 per pound in the Upper and Lower Keys.
In Grand Cayman, where he lives, Harvey is promoting the idea of divers spearing the red lionfish and devil firefish instead of grouper or snapper.
“Taking lionfish instead would take the pressure off those other populations,” Harvey said. “We need to do something about it.”