Don’t Spare Them, Spear Them… and Eat Them!
“You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying lionfish”
Attala Maharaj, The Salty Dog Restaurant, Trinidad
“Come and experience lionfish and do the seas a favour!”
Sharon Taylor, Boathouse Restaurant, Tobago
Authors: Dr. Farahnaz Solomon, Bria De Costa, Cherisse Persad
Lionfish is closer than you know, Find out more below
The invasive lionfish is “flying off” fishers’ spears and into markets, retail stores, and restaurants around Trinidad and Tobago. Whether you are looking for new seafood options to prepare at home or enjoy at a restaurant, lionfish is the perfect choice. This month October, which was National Seafood Month, the LionfishTT Project Team at the Institute of Marine Affairs spoke with the owners of two restaurants, The Salty Dog on Mucurapo Road located in west Trinidad and the Boathouse in Castara, Tobago, to learn about their experiences in serving this “hot” commodity.
On the hunt for Lionfish?
Specialising in seafood cuisine with a focus on sustainability, The Salty Dog has been devoted to serving lionfish since opening in 2018. Chef and owner, Mrs. Attala Maharaj, emphasised their goal of protecting the oceans and how the preparation and sale of lionfish perfectly aligns with this vision. She believes that consuming lionfish will save future generations by protecting coral reefs and marine life, on which rely for many ecosystem services. She also raved about the lionfish for being not just tasty but also high in nutritional value. At the restaurant, prices of a lionfish meal range from $100 – $200 which is reasonable when compared to other fish and meat meals. It may be enjoyed grilled, served in a coconut curry sauce or with chips to give that “fish n’ chips’ meal”. Mrs. Maharaj reported that lionfish was a favourite among customers, often requested by those already familiar with it, as well as those curious to try it for the first time, having seen it advertised on their social media platforms. For restaurant week this year, many customers ordered lionfish in preference to traditional favourites such as snapper and grouper. The three lionfish meals prepared by Salty Dog’s chefs for tasting by the IMA Project Team confirmed the flaky texture and sweet buttery flavour of this fish. Its firm, delicate flesh also makes it suitable for different cooking techniques, allowing chefs to experiment and create innovative dishes.
If you are reading this article and think you are at a disadvantage because you are in Tobago, think again! The Boathouse Restaurant in Castara serves lionfish as one of their specialties year-round. Located just steps away from the beach, owner and chef at the Boathouse, Mrs. Sharon Taylor, praised the versatility of the lionfish, describing it as being “better than cod.” At her establishment, lionfish is served: steamed, filleted in a garlic butter sauce, curry coconut sauce or chili coconut sauce and deep fried in a Carib beer batter – the crowd’s favourite. Lionfish is particularly popular on Wednesday nights when customers relax on the beach, listen to drums and partake in the famous traditional dance, limbo. Available for both lunch and dinner, the cost of a lionfish meal ranges between S80-$150, again quite reasonable when compared to traditional fish and meats. Mrs. Taylor even invites customers into her kitchen for a “hands-on” approach to the restaurant experience, as they aid in preparing their own lionfish meal. You can even create a home-style lionfish experience using her recipe book, sold online or at the restaurant.
Spearfishing to make a Difference
Staff at both restaurants are well trained in the handling and cleaning of lionfish with its venomous spines posing no challenges during preparation. Both restaurant owners indicated that there was a lingering misconception among some members of the public that the meat is poisonous and hence unsafe for consumption, this is becoming less common with public education on the difference between poisonous and venomous.
The Salty Dog and the Boathouse have a reliable and constant supply of lionfish made possible by the culling activities of recreational divers. Spearfishing for the purpose of culling the lionfish began in 2014 with the support of a Green Fund project executed by the IMA. Divers and fishers were encouraged to catch and eat lionfish using a number of public education and outreach initiatives including lionfish derbies and tasting events, videos distributed through local cinemas, free-to-air television and on social media, and brochures and other content shared with, sea fearing interests, students and the general public.
Native to the Indo-Pacific, lionfish has no known predators in the Atlantic and was first recorded in Tobago in 2012 and in Trinidad in 2013. Without predators to control their population and coupled with their high fecundity – a single female can produce as much as 2 million eggs per year—the lionfish quickly spread to most reefs around both islands.
The ecological challenge with the lionfish is that they eat everything, and a lot of it. Their stomachs can expand up to 30 times its normal volume and researchers from the IMA among others have recorded more than 80 different types of prey in their stomachs. Their gluttonous eating habits can have serious ecological impacts ranging from a reduction in reef fish biomass, to an increase in algal growth due to herbivore removal, and changes to prey community structure. This can lead to the deterioration of reefs and a reduction in the availability of commercial species of fish which use the reefs for a nursery or habitat. The fishing and tourism industries can be seriously affected if lionfish populations are not controlled.
Lionfish is here to stay, but mitigation can help!
While complete eradication is impossible, impacts on local marine ecosystems can be mitigated by keeping the lionfish density at low levels. If you are a seafood consumer, choose lionfish. A higher demand for lionfish will encourage more fishers to catch and remove them from our waters. In addition to The Salty Dog and the Boathouse, a number of other local restaurants serve lionfish, these include: Finz in Speyside; The Fish Pot in Mt. Irvine; and Brown Cow in Crown Point. If you want to prepare it yourself at home, it may be sourced from some recreational divers/spearfishers and fishpot fishers in Tobago. There are also retail suppliers such as Lion’s Den Seafood and eSpeara Charters. Lionfish products such as fishballs and sausages are also being offered for sale at a few retail outlets.
Financed by the Green Fund, the IMA is currently undertaking work with Tobago fishers to develop a lionfish fishpot in a bid to promote the capturing of more lionfish to improve marine ecosystem health and satisfy demand. This fishery will target lionfish populations in deeper waters, in an effort to control the lionfish numbers beyond depths accessible by recreational divers and spear fishers. Another major objective of the project is the assessment of public knowledge and awareness on the lionfish and its invasion, as well as test attitudes towards consumption. You can help us by taking part in our survey at https://tinyurl.com/lionfishKAPS.
National Seafood month may have come to an end, but it is not too late to try the lionfish and do your part to protect our seas and oceans. Let’s get the lionfish out of our waters and onto a plate!
Authors: Dr. Farahnaz Solomon, Bria De Costa, Cherisse Persad