Here we are once again preparing for the holy season of Lent with its 40 days of repentance, reflection and sacrifice. Invariably we give up something we love, but this year I also wanted to present you with a new challenge, which is also a personal one for me: consuming lionfish for Lent. Yes, that's right, instead of just giving up what you normally do, add lionfish to your kitchen menus. Most of us increase our fish intake anyway, so not only will it delight our tummies, but we'll also be playing our part in preserving marine life.
Locally, we have some very hard-working marine environmentalists leading the charge to create awareness and to control the levels of lionfish in our waters. I was discussing with a dear friend, Nathalie Zenny of The Nature Conservancy Caribbean Programme at the recent farm-to-table dinner and I told her that I was going to do a piece on this subject. She told me about Dr Dayne Buddo who heads the UWI Discovery Bay Marine Laboratory and of his progressive campaign with The Nature Conservancy to establish a pilot site on the Pedro Banks to study lionfish, training of fishermen, managers and creating sustainable practices. A few days later, she sent me a lot of information on the subject and introduced me to Nakhle Hado from Food For The Poor (FFP).
Hado heads the fisheries division of FFP. In 2009 along with Dr Buddo and a few NGOs he formed a subcommittee funded by NEPA and created a nationwide project targeting fishing villages all over the coast. Fishermen and lionfish vendors were trained in the proper handling and preparation of this fish to increase public awareness. Hado was happy to report that as a result of this drive, most if not all of our fishermen are aware of this invasive species and know how to tackle them. Lionfish are caught by spear, but some will also be caught in commercial nets amongst other fish due to the density of their populations. Hado informed me that Chez Maria restaurant on Hillcrest Avenue was the first commercial restaurant to offer lionfish meals and he would like to see other restaurants take up the initiative and put it on the menu. Rainforest has also committed to selling this product and has introduced it to their line of seafood products. White River in St Ann is a popular lionfish spot. Joseph Dunn has filmed a documentary on the local lionfish project and kindly shared a YouTube snippet with me.
Eating lionfish is not only good for us — it's nutritionally rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, but most importantly we need to take action to protect our marine environment and native species such as snapper and parrot. Indeed, as much as it pains me to say this, I am going to take a break from eating parrot fish for a while. The reason? Lionfish poses a danger to these fish, amongst others, which eat algae and so protect our coral reefs. Therefore, I implore you to decrease your consumption of parrot fish which I know is difficult, given that culturally it is a part of our culinary tradition, but in order to save it for future generations, we need to make the sacrifices now. Another popular species, the red snapper population which already has been overfished, is struggling to grow strong in numbers again as the lionfish competes for the same food. The lionfish is an insidious fish not native to the Atlantic and the Caribbean. Unfortunately they have no natural predator, and multiply in droves, thus creating an imbalance to our native marine life.
I eagerly awaited the arrival of a box of freshly caught lionfish from Rainforest Seafood. Like much of the general populace, we have been hearing all of these stories about this predator fish which is wreaking havoc in our beloved Caribbean Sea. One of the myths is that we can't eat it because it is poisonous. Yes, it's true that their fins, though gorgeous, are toxic, but these are removed before consumption and if the fish are frozen very quickly after being caught it helps to detoxify any toxins present. If there is any trace toxins left this will be removed through cooking, leaving it safe to eat. Secondly, the flesh is surprisingly good, outside of the striped head, which is exotic looking; the body reminded me of a butterfish. It has tender white flesh, a cross between the flesh of a snapper and a grouper which lends itself to steaming, grilling and shallow frying. So there are no worries about not liking it, our taste buds and creative hands can easily adapt to enjoying this fish. Try some lionfish today!