Lionfish don’t belong here and, since they snuck into the Med via the Suez canal, they’ve taken over our seas. It’s time to fight back – with a knife and fork – says THEO PANAYIDES
First the bad news: lionfish are taking over the eastern Mediterranean. They’re an invasive species, they’re predators, they have poisonous spines, they can live for 10 years or more, they eat between 2.5 and six per cent of their body weight every day, and the females lay over two million eggs per year.
Now the good news: they’re delicious – whether fried, baked, served in a burger, or just sushi-style.
That, more or less, was the message being promoted at Lionfish Culinary Fusion, held at the Golden Bay Beach Hotel in Larnaca a few days ago. This was a state-sponsored luncheon, organised by the Larnaka Tourism Board with the Fisheries Department also in attendance, underlining the gravity of the situation – but we also had Zambartas Wineries providing the wines (no surprise that a dry white works best for lionfish) and the executive chefs of six Larnaca hotels joining forces for a buffet based around the spiky predator.
There were lionfish tacos and vol-au-vents, gazpacho lion soup and lionfish ceviche. There were lionfish sushi rolls and ‘marinated lionfish rose’ (whatever that was). I sampled a bite-sized cube of lionfish stuffed with smoked salmon, served in a spoon and topped with a blob of cream cheese. There were lionfish strips with dill sauce, lionfish balls and lionfish burgers, lionfish bruschetta and lionfish rillettes with prawns – the last-named a bit of an irony since lionfish actually eat prawns, along with virtually everything else they can find.
The species’ voracious appetite is part of the problem, along with the fact that they don’t have any natural predators since they don’t belong in Cypriot waters. Lionfish are native to the Indian Ocean, and snuck in through the Red Sea when the Suez Canal was unwisely widened about four years ago.
Their numbers have since grown exponentially, which apparently is what happens with lionfish. Demetris Kletou, founder of MER Lab in Limassol, cites a similar situation in Florida, when the fish were released into the sea from local aquariums. Within a few years they’d migrated up the Eastern seaboard – even as far as New York – and all the way south to Brazil, as well as taking over the reefs off Florida itself.
Our own Red Sea contingent have spread across the Med as far west as Malta and Tunisia – but Cyprus is very much the “hot spot” according to Kletou, and indeed MER Lab are at the forefront of an EU-funded project called ReLionMed, “preventing a lionfish invasion in the Mediterranean through early response and targeted removal”.
An app has been designed, allowing the public to report lionfish sightings, while around 100 volunteer divers have been organised into removal action teams (amusingly known as RATs), catching as many as possible. Around 3,000 lionfish have now been removed – but of course, to use a suitably aquatic metaphor, that’s only a drop in the ocean.
The basic problem is that there’s no commercial rationale for catching large amounts of lionfish – which is where you the discerning, fish-loving gourmet public come in. “Lionfish are very nutritious, very tasty, and totally safe to eat,” Kletou assured the lunch guests, then struck a gloomy note: “Despite all our efforts, their numbers continue to rise rapidly, while the public tends to be wary about consuming them”.
The poisonous spines may have something to do with it – though in fact other fish (like the popular kourkounes, or rabbitfish) also have spines, and it hasn’t stopped them from becoming taverna staples. Home cooks may indeed be a little nervous about handling the fish, though cutting off the spines is simple enough – and of course you can always get your fishmonger to clean the pesky thing before buying. (The sting is painful but not life-threatening, unless you’re allergic; Kletou compares it to a bee sting, which causes only temporary discomfort for the vast majority.) In any case, poisonous spines shouldn’t get in the way of sampling the delicate white flesh in a hotel or restaurant.
Lionfish represent a real problem. They threaten marine biodiversity, reducing the numbers of other fish – both the smaller fish (and prawns, and crabs) which they eat, and the larger fish which would otherwise feed on those smaller fish. They’re seldom a danger to swimmers, since they usually prefer rocky spots to sandy beaches (and aren’t aggressive anyway, striking only when cornered), but they hinder tourism in other ways – for instance, by clustering around wrecks and scaring off divers. Above all, however, they’re bad for the ecosystem. They eat more and breed more than other species, and will end up unbalancing the system if left unchecked.
Well-meaning folks always say they’d like to ‘do something for the environment’, but never know what. Well, here’s a case where you can do something for the environment in the simplest, most painless way possible – by stuffing your face! That Golden Bay lunch sent a message, and the message is clear. Your country needs you to eat lionfish.