Unwelcome invader looks good on a plate

The invasive -- and apparently incredibly yummy -- lionfish has a growing legion of fans in the culinary world, but it’s still early to tell how viable it is as a commercial fish in the Keys.

" We’re going to know a lot more after the lobster season, " said Lad Akins, director of special projects for Reef Environmental Education Foundation. That’s because lobster fishermen are finding increasing numbers of the beautiful yet venomous Indio-Pacific invader when they pull their traps.

Licensed commercial fishermen are able to sell bycatch like the lionfish that have been making their way into the traps designed to catch spiny lobster.

" The question is how many of those fishermen will get them to market, " Akins said. " If they do, they’ll find it’s well worth their time. "

Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, said probably fewer than 10 of his trap-fishermen members are selling lionfish, but he expects those numbers will grow.

" I think it has enormous marketing potential, even as bycatch, as this population continues to explode, " Kelly said. " As we get them, as the market develops, it would certainly stimulate interest. "

Akins knows there are restaurants in New York and Chicago that are clamoring to get the fish, but it’s still in short supply. Even in the Caribbean, where the fish is particularly prodigious, it’s still mostly caught for local consumption, but Akins says that’s beginning to change.

" We may see a lot of the restaurants importing from the Caribbean, " he said.

The lionfish poses a problem for commercial fishermen — and the local marine ecosystem as a whole — because it’s a prolific reproducer with a voracious appetite and no natural predators.

The species has been spotted as far north as North Carolina and along the Panhandle. It made a big splash in Florida recently when one was discovered in the Loxahatchee River.

It’s in a fisherman’s best interest to get the lionfish before it gobbles up commercially valuable species.

To hear Bill Kelly talk, you’d think Gary Nichols was the king of lionfish.

" But it’s only because I fish where the lionfish live, " Nichols said.

Nichols is finding them in a much different habitat than the snorkelers and divers who are picking them off the shallow-water reef one by one; his traps are in 150 to 225 feet of structure-free water.

Nichols and daughter Kelly run two boats out of Nichols Seafood, and they’ve witnessed the invading population grow.

" Two years ago, I called in every lionfish I saw to Lad and the others, " he said, " and by the end of the season, I’d probably caught 60 total. "

Last winter, Nichols said, he brought in 200 lionfish in just one day. That was exceptional — the usual pull is more like 100 lionfish per 500 traps.

Nichols said the lionfish caught earlier in the season were small, but they grew in both size and number as the season progressed. Soon it was enough of a haul to be worth selling them out of his Conch Key fish house.

" I’m shipping them to South Carolina, selling them to [Fish House] Encore.... It’s becoming a new thing, " he said.

Michelle Kosiek, general manager of the Fish House and Encore restaurants in Key Largo, said she can’t wait to put it back on the menu at Encore.

Akins taught Chef Peter Tselikis how to safely handle the fish. So far it’s only prepared one way — fried whole — because the restaurant’s supply so far has been too small to serve as fillets.

The restaurant also put a few live lionfish in a tank and posted materials to educate customers on the issues with the species.

" They’ve loved it, " she said of the mostly local crowd who’ve tried the lionfish appetizer.

Many people say it’s comparable in taste to hogfish, and some say it’s even better. Kelly is one of those people. He had his first taste at Encore, and he was hooked. " It’s really good — very smooth, very delicate, very flavorful. "

Akins and Kelly said they’ve been talking about doing workshops for fishing captains and their deckhands so they know how to properly handle the fish.

Accidental contact with one of the fish’s venomous spines can mean just a little discomfort, hours of pain or even days of lost work, depending on the severity of the sting and the person’s reaction to the venom.

Puncture-proof gloves make them easy to handle while alive, and once the spines are removed — or cooked to denature the venom — it’s just like handling any other fish.

With proper tools and a little training, the fish goes from ocean to entree without much trouble.

" A lot of the hesitation is that they’re just not aware of how easy they are to handle, " Akins said.

Beyond finding a market for the lionfish, Kelly hopes his members will be able to help marine researchers get a better handle on how serious the invasion is when they put their traps back in the water this week.

" The immediate thing we can do is get some sense of geographic distribution and population density, " Kelly said.

Awareness of the lionfish scourge has been growing throughout Florida, and it’s also been getting lots of national attention.

Locally, it’s been all hands on deck, with every marine science agency and organization involved in monitoring the problem.

NOAA launched a widespread " Eat Lionfish " campaign last year, and its Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has partnered with REEF on a series of lionfish derbies to promote the safe capture — and consumption — of the fish.

Experts hope that the Keys’ quick reaction to the invasion can minimize its long-term damage.

" We expected the invasion to progress here in the Keys, and it has, " Akins said. " They’re showing up in larger numbers, the fish are getting bigger, and we’re seeing them in many more places.

" But, " he’s quick to add, " local control, especially in areas where the dive operators are visiting on a regular basis and removing them, seems to be very effective, " Akins said.