How to Save Fish by Eating Fish

Invasive fish are threatening native populations...but you can help by putting the invaders on the hook.

August 23, 2010

Seafood lovers may be the big fish that keeps invasive species under control.

RODALE NEWS, EMMUAS, PA—Nowadays, when we talk about seafood, it usually has to do with what you shouldn't be eating, whether it's due to the disastrous effects of oil spills or because the fish have been so overharvested that entire fisheries are about to collapse. But not this time. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in conjunction with a few nonprofit ocean conservation groups, has recently launched a campaign to get you to eat a particular fish they want to go extinct, at least outside of its original habitat. And it's not the only invasive fish on the menu these days.


THE DETAILS: NOAA's campaign is focusing on the odd-looking lionfish, a species of fish native to the South Pacific that has invaded the Caribbean and the southern Atlantic Ocean. There, it gobbles up valuable shrimp, as well as baby snapper and grouper, two species that are just now rebounding from years of overfishing. It also competes with those two species for food, and because the lionfish has no known predators, it has run roughshod over ocean ecosystems, reproducing as much as 700 percent over the past two decades. "The urban legend of lionfish is that when Hurricane Andrew hit Miami in 1991, the wind came and apparently blew out the windows of these large glass buildings where people were keeping them in tanks as pets," says Michael Dimin, owner of Sea 2 Table, one of NOAA's campaign partners that works with fishermen from well-managed fisheries and connects them to chefs who want their product. "Half a dozen or so escaped and ended up in the Atlantic, and 15 years later they were covering the reefs from the Carolinas down to Panama."

Never tasted lionfish? "They're rather delicious to eat," Dimin says. "Crustaceans are their main diet, so they have a very sweet-flavored flesh, kind of like a snapper, but very delicious." Unfortunately, Dimin says, NOAA's scheme has run into a bit of a snag. "The fishermen and NOAA haven't really figured out an effective method of capture." Lionfish don't seem tempted by regular hook-and-line fishing methods, and they've outwitted traps. The only way people seem to be successful in catching them is the really old-fashioned way: spear-fishing. So the fish isn't yet on as many menus as it could be. "We have dozens and dozens of chefs who would love to serve lionfish for its culinary values, and we already have a pretty good distribution channel for them," Dimin says. All that's needed is the fish.

WHAT IT MEANS: It's not often that foodies are called on to deliberately deplete wild populations of an edible animal. And though lionfish entrées may be hard to find, you can also do our part by eating other nuisance fish. As Midwesterners try to prevent the invasive fish species Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan and destroying its already threatened ecosystem, a few Chicago-area chefs have put it on the menu. Dimin says his organization hasn't pushed it, however, "because the waters that they're in are not necessarily the cleanest." A 2008 analysis found that, although low in PCBs, Asian carp collected from the Illinois and Mississippi rivers had high enough mercury levels that, according to Environmental Protection Agency's fish-consumption guidelines, pregnant women and children under 15 should eat them no more than once a week. There's very little data on contaminant levels in lionfish, so if you have the chance to taste one, you might want to follow the same guidelines.

For those with an adventurous palate—who aren't pregnant or under 15—here are some options:

• Grab your scuba gear. If someone wanted to purchase a lionfish now, says Dimin, "they'd have to get their scuba gear and a spear gun and go diving off a reef, anywhere from the Carolinas through Trinidad." He says a few countries, including Belize and Panama, have organized "lionfish rodeos" for people interested in tasting the fish, a consideration if you're planning a vacation south of the border.

• Or head to Chinatown. Americans haven't adopted the Asian carp on their plates as readily as Asian cultures have. Fish processors are working on deals with Illinois politicians to make it legal to export them to Asia, and one company in Illinois is already selling it locally. You may be able to find carp fillets in Asian grocery stores, but due to their invasive nature, it wouldn't be difficult to head to a Midwestern river and try to catch one of your own. They literally fly right out of the water into passing boats.

• Cook it. Lionfish can replace snapper or grouper in any recipe, says Dimin, and Asian carp can be prepared in a variety of ways, the most common preparation being smoked. Some people fry Asian carp the same way they'd fry catfish, and in Vietnamese recipes, the carp is soaked in coconut milk with lemongrass and chili peppers.