Lionfish are admittedly beautiful, from that adorable little unicorn horn to their colorful "mane" of fronds and brightly-hued stripes. It makes you forget that these fish are actually a threat to Florida waters, an invasive and destructive species with venomous spines capable of destroying the native fish while disrupting the fragile ecosystem.
Luckily, Whole Foods is here to help. In April, the company announced plans to catch and sell lionfish in an effort to cull their numbers from local coastal waters and — starting this week — the wait is over.
Known as a hub for certified sustainable seafood, all 26 South Florida Whole Foods Markets from the panhandle to Miami will now be offering shoppers a fresh, local — and colorful — new seafood option with lionfish.
Since the first Florida lionfish sighting in 1985 the species — native to Indo-Pacific waters — has expanded at astonishing speeds, contributing to the destruction of native coral reef ecosystems in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean. By competing with native organisms for limited resources, they are also responsible for the extinction of native plants and animals.
"Promotions such as this will encourage continued involvement in proactively and successfully removing lionfish from coastal waters." - David Ventura, Florida Whole Foods Market seafood coordinator.
Along with altering the local environments, the invasive lionfish species presents a different type of threat due to its flowing mane of venomous spines, making it a harmful predator in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.
Once caught and placed on ice, the lionfish are harmless, and no longer able to release venom from their glands (ensuring safe consumption for shoppers).
By reducing the number of lionfish in the wild, Florida Whole Foods Market associate marketing coordinator Briana Madrid says the company is doing its part to improve the environmental threat they cause.
Just a few months ago, Whole Foods Markets began selling a limited stock of lionfish at just three locations — Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale, and Sarasota. The goal: to encourage fishermen to provide steady availability year-round.
As a coastal region relying heavily on seafood as a food source, the plan is perfect for Whole Foods Market stores in Florida, adds Madrid, all of which have announced their participation in protecting the surrounding South Florida waterways and its inhabitants while providing an affordable (and delicious) new seafood option.
Despite its bad rap, it turns out lionfish is quite versatile. From ceviche to a simple pan sauté, the lionfish's white, buttery meat lends itself to any number of different recipes.
Starting Wednesday, May 25 through Tuesday, May 31 shoppers will be able to find whole lionfish on sale for $8.99 per pound (the price will increase to $9.99 per pound after the introductory sale). Customers interested in buying lionfish can rest assured trained team members will execute all the necessary safety preparations for shoppers, including the removal of the venomous spines, before purchase. Seafood department staff can also assist in menu planning and recipe tips.
And for those of you worried about the vilified lionfish, rest assured that fishing methods are both in accordance with government regulations and humane, adds Madrid. The Whole Foods Market seafood department maintains some of the highest fishing standards in the nation, requiring all seafood be either certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, or rated green or yellow by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Even if a species is abundant — clearly the case for lionfish — the rating is still important to ensure fisheries and catch methods do not harm other species in the process.
"Our hope is to create a demand to entice more fishermen to catch lionfish, while helping to move the seafood industry toward greater sustainability and ultimately creating healthier ecosystems and reversing trends in overfishing," says Florida regional Whole Foods Market seafood coordinator David Ventura. "In an effort to educate the public on the importance of lionfish removal, promotions such as this will encourage continued involvement in proactively and successfully removing lionfish from coastal waters."
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.