Southern Agenda

Catch and Relief

An illustration of a chef in a wetsuit spearing a lionfish

Illustration: Tim Bower

Not only do invasive and venomous lionfish compete with native reef fish for food, but the spiny bullies also routinely devour any other sea creature they can fit in their mouths. Lionfish reproduce quickly, and conservationists have been scheming ways to fight back for years. Destin–Fort Walton Beach, like other places in the Gulf as well as in the western Atlantic and Caribbean, has adopted a two-pronged solution: Catch them and eat them. To help protect coastal ecosystems, divers use spearguns and capture devices to trap lionfish and compete for prizes at the Emerald Coast Open (May 17 and 18), the world’s largest lionfish tournament. Last year’s catch? Nearly 25,000 fish, almost double the previous year’s haul. And during the ECO Restaurant Week (May 12–18), chefs serve up the sweet and mild fish. Last year’s restaurant-week winner, La Paz in Destin, served lionfish tostadas and fajitas, and even prepared it empapelado-style (in a foil pouch). “Don’t overcook it!” advises La Paz chef Felipe Isidoro. “Lionfish is very delicate, which is why steaming it empapelado-style works so well. Keep it simple and don’t overpower the fish.”