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Lionfish, Non-Native Predator In Florida Waters, ‘Invade’ Gainesville Restaurants

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Karage Lionfish at Dragonfly Sushi in downtown Gainesville is one of many lionfish dishes served by participating restaurants. (Photo by Allison Valdez/WUFT News)
Karage lionfish at Dragonfly Sushi & Sake Co. in downtown Gainesville. Dragonfly is one of 14 area restaurants participating in the Lionfish Invasion Tour, which aims to combat the invasive species by highlighting it as a restaurant dish. (Allison Valdez/WUFT News)

Lionfish have invaded Florida’s coastal waters at alarming rates, but for the month of October, they’ve made their way into Gainesville restaurants, too.

The Lionfish Invasion Tour aims to combat the invasive species’ unchecked population growth by hunting the fish, distributing it to restaurants and having them serve it to diners.

“It’s for a good cause, but once they taste it, we hope they’ll continue to order it in the future,” said Joe Glass, founder of ReefSavers, the conservation group that organized the tour.

Diner Allie Yocum said that though she doesn’t usually eat meat, she was excited to try lionfish.

“It’s really special to me: the idea that people are making the effort to go and take the animals that are so negative to our environment,” she said while eating a lionfish dish at Dragonfly Sushi & Sake Co. in downtown Gainesville.

Dragonfly is one of 14 Gainesville restaurants participating in the lionfish tour, and others have expressed interest.

“It was easy to team up,” Glass said. “The fish is already delicious itself, and [when] you put it in the hands of someone who can create a masterpiece of it, it’s kind of a win-win situation.”

Jeffrey Allen, Dragonfly’s head chef, said he supports ReefSavers’ mission.  

“We’re all about sustainability and helping out with the ocean. That’s where all our fish comes from, so we definitely want to keep the ocean alive and well,” he said. “We have sustainable oysters on our seasonal menu, so we were already in that motion.”

This month for the tour, Allen is making two dishes: citrus-cured lionfish sashimi and karage lionfish, a fried dish with cilantro and lime flavors.

Other variations served at area restaurants include lionfish pizza at Blue Highway Pizza in the Tioga Town Center, pan-seared lionfish with mango-dragon fruit salsa at Emiliano’s Café, and prosciutto-wrapped lionfish at Amelia’s Restaurant.

“There’s such a wide variety,” Glass said, noting that restaurants are changing up their menu often to accommodate the versatility. “Just because you went to one restaurant the first week, you can probably go back the second week and have a completely different meal.”

If there’s enough demand for the fish, restaurants may continue serving it after the tour leaves town and makes its way to other cities. It’s an idea that’s not surprising based on supply and demand: Some restaurants that did a soft-launch on Sept. 30 ran out of lionfish, Glass said.

Lionfish are native to Indonesia, but they made their way into Florida’s waters in the mid-1980s. Experts aren’t sure how it happened, but they do know today’s stocks originate from a handful of fish.

They’re now a top predator in coral reefs in the Atlantic, and they eat more than 50 species in those environments, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Their populations have gone unchecked because the fish has no natural predator in Atlantic waters. Worsening the problem is female lionfish being able to release up to 30,000 eggs every four days year-round.

Lionfish aren’t the most accessible catches for fishers, either. They can dwell in depths of up to 1,000 feet, and they don’t travel in schools, making them available primarily to individual spearfishers.

“It’s all speared one at a time and brought back on the boat. It’s a really daunting task,” Glass said. “We have divers going out several times a week, diving to depths up to 150 feet.”

ReefSavers works with scuba divers in Pensacola, Jacksonville and Ormond Beach, and their excursions can result in 150 to 500 pounds of lionfish each time. But that figure is also indicative of how many of the fish are present.

Glass said he’s hopeful, though, that the fish will continue to grow in popularity as a dish.

“I think it’s just now gaining notoriety,” he said. “I think we’ll be seeing more and more in restaurants.”

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