Why Whole Foods Wants You to Eat This Venomous Fish to Death

If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em.

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May 27 2016, 6:14pm

Image: Flickr/Tchami

It's not often you're told that by eating something—and a lot of it—you can help save the environment.

But that's exactly what Florida wildlife conservationists and local Whole Foods supermarkets want you to do.

This week, 26 Whole Foods outlets across Florida began selling invasive lionfish meat to customers adventurous enough to cook up the venomous species. According to the company, it hopes to spark a market demand for both fishermen and consumers by proving that lionfish can be a sustainable alternative to other seafood choices.

"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," David Ventura, Florida regional seafood coordinator for Whole Foods, told the Miami New Times.

Florida's lionfish problem is best described as an epidemic. During the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's annual lionfish awareness events this past May, exactly 14,067 lionfish were captured and removed off the Florida coast in just two days.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission lionfish cull in 2015. Image: Florida FWC

Yet, in spite of those numbers, valiant efforts to stymie lionfish population growth have been neutral at best. The predatory species is known to feed on 70 types of marine fish and invertebrates, and also competes with native, sometimes threatened, species for prey. In 2015, biologists reported that lionfish had gotten so voracious, they actually started cannibalizing one another. If left undisturbed, these fish can wipe out 90 percent of a single reef.

The crusade against this formidable fish has been 30 years in the making. Lionfish first appeared off Florida's Atlantic coast in 1985, perhaps released into local waters by an irresponsible exotic fish owner. In the early 2000s, the fish was swarming Atlantic coastlines and waters around the Bahamas. And by 2010, lionfish were everywhere—including regions biologists never expected to find them, such as the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Lionfish have been able to grow to plague-like numbers due to their unique spawning behavior and overall resilience. Each female releases approximately 15,000 eggs at a time, and can spawn every four days in warmer environments. The species thrives in both shallow and deep waters, and can also survive temperatures as low as 48 to 50 degrees.

As far as eating them goes, according to Whole Foods, lionfish taste great and possess a buttery, white flesh. The company says its lionfish are sourced from local divers "from the Florida Keys to Pensacola and Destin," and that Whole Foods employees will remove their venomous spines before stocking them. Lionfish meat is perfectly safe to eat.

Still, it's worth mentioning that a minority of consumers have expressed concern over something called ciguatera fish poisoning, which is a common marine toxin that has been associated with certain types of lionfish. However, biologists urge people to know that once cooked, the species is safe to eat. And as of right now, there have been no known cases of ciguatera from consuming lionfish.

Conservationists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have encouraged people to support the sustainable seafood market by choosing lionfish over less environmentally-friendly options. According to the Florida FWC, there is no recreational or commercial harvest bag limit for lionfish.

Fried lionfish anyone? Image: Florida FWC

Whether or not this economic approach to defeating lionfish will work remains to be seen.

In Puerto Rico, a similar model has been implemented to deplete invasive green iguana numbers, and residents and tourists alike are urged to eat the lizard whenever possible. Currently, green iguana cuisine has proven more successful as an export, rather than a local delicacy. Puerto Ricans don't have much of an appetite for the iguana—which is fair, considering the exotic pet trade is responsible for introducing the species to the island—and the market appears more of a novelty than an actual conservation solution.

Whole Foods will be selling lionfish for $8.99 a pound through May 31, and will increase its price to $9.99 per pound starting June 1.

If you have the chance to try this fearsome fish, it sounds absolutely delicious when battered and fried.

Correction: The headline of this story originally referred to lionfish as poisonous, not venomous, due to an editing mistake. The copy correctly referred to the fish as venomous.