Environmentalists, Whole Foods Hope To Get Floridians Hooked On Lionfish

Aug 17, 2016

Credit Regan McCarthy WFSU News

Lionfish are an invasive species that have moved into Gulf Waters. The voracious feeders are wreaking havoc on reefs and native fisheries. But fishermen and a major grocery store chain are teaming up to tackle the problem, by moving the fish a little lower down the food chain.

Just outside the door of the Tallahassee Whole Foods Market a large signs reads “Take a bite out of lionfish. Be a part of the solution.” David Ventura is the Whole Foods Florida Seafood Coordinator.

“In the perfect world that would be the best case scenario that we would make them extinct in Florida waters,” Ventura says. "Another good situation for us would be to at least try to control it so it doesn’t spread and get any larger because right now they’re doing a tremendous amount of damage to the coral reef and the native species. It’s just incredible.”

Venture says Whole Foods wants to be a part of the solution. The grocery chain began selling lion fish in some of its Florida stores in April and has since expanded to sell the fish in all its stores throughout the state.

“It’s new. It’s very, very new for a lot of people. But there’s a lot of people who are very aware of the lionfish and the problems it’s causing. They are aware that it’s an invasive species. Many people, many of our customers are aware of the damage that it’s doing to our ecosystems, our coral reefs, our native species—continuously. They’re a ferocious eater. So a lot of people are aware of the problem,” Ventura says.

Ventura is right. That’s what brought customer Jazzie (JAY-zee) Whitaker to the store’s fish counter.

“I been seeing it on t.v. and how it’s an invasive species and the best way to get rid of them is to eat them,” Whitaker says.

Whitaker says she’s excited to do something good for the environment, as well as her taste buds. 

Stewart Ledbetter is the fishmonger in Tallahasee’s Whole Foods. Lionfish have venomous spines sticking out of their bodies, but those are removed before they’re sold. Ledbetter and his team are also available to clean or filet the fish to order. And while a simple sautéed lion fish tastes delicious. Ventura says there are plenty of ways to enjoy it.

“My favorite has been the ceviche. It’s a very robust flavor and I enjoy it,” Ventura says.

Venture says another great idea is to use lionfish in a favorite fish taco recipe. He says it can easily be used as a replacement in any snapper recipe. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission encourages spear fishermen to target lion fish by hosting tournaments. The commission also provides a list of wholesalers willing purchase any lionfish caught.