According to many biologists, you don’t really know your research inside and out until you’ve tasted what you study (there is, quite literally, a badge of honor for it). I’ve known biologists who have chugged shots of plankton, taken bites from agar plates, and some have even drank water that’s a billion years old to attain the dubious honor. You’d be surprised* just how many times I’ve gotten into conversations about my research and my study organisms only to be interrupted by “that’s great and all, but have you eaten them?” And every time, I had to hang my head in shame and confess that, alas, I had not. Now, I’m thrilled to report that while I was in Beaufort, NC to collect samples, I finally joined the cool biologists club. I ate my study species.
And they are delicious.
It certainly helps that I study lionfish. Unlike many of my colleagues, my fish are perfectly palatable, even downright mouthwatering. Still, until a couple weeks ago, I had never tasted the freshest delicacy to hit the southeastern US, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean.
I say ‘fresh’ because lionfish are truly newcomers in the Atlantic, the unfortunate consequence of aquarium releases over time. These pretty, frilly fish are native to the Indo-Pacific, but have spent the past two decades making the warm waters from North Carolina to Venezuela home. They’re one of the worst invasive species the US has ever had to face. Lionfish been called everything from cockroaches to a living, reproducing oil spill, and scientists fear that unless we can control their populations, they will cause irreversible ecological cascades, forever altering our marine ecosystems and threatening the species we care about most.
Controlling species populations is difficult and expensive, though, and it’s hard to justify spending thousands or even millions of dollars just to hunt down a species that you most likely will never be completely rid of. But there is one way to ensure that thousands of lionfish are removed from the Atlantic every year: create demand for their flesh.
Lionfish are venomous, not poisonous — that is, while a sting hurts like hell, the venom is harmless once cooked. Thus government officials, managers, and conservation organizations avidly promote an “eat ’em to beat ’em” strategy, and there are even efforts being made to create a commercial fishery.
Their invasiveness and the current push to eat them in general, of course, made it all the more damning that, as a scientist studying this nuisance, I hadn’t eaten a single bite of lionfish. It was a deficiency that needed to be rectified STAT. Thankfully, Libby Eaton was ready to come to my rescue.
Beaufort, NC just had its inaugural lionfish derby, a tournament with the aim of killing as many invasive lionfish as possible. The idea started with Libby Eaton, owner of the local restaurant Bistro-by-the-Sea, when she visited Belize in January. She heard that other areas had been successful in fishing down local populations of lionfish through tournaments, and thought it was a brilliant way to both do some good and spread the word about the invasion. The event, a joint effort between Discovery Diving, the Hampton Inn in Morehead City, the Eastern Carolina Artificial Reef Association and Carteret Catch, was a tremendous success. More than 240 lionfish were speared in the week long derby even though storm winds prevented diving most of the days. On the last day of the tournament, a six person team speared over 150 lionfish!
The big winner was my dive buddy Charlie Coffman, who singlehandedly speared 50 fish in just two dives. Since the dives were down deep to over 120 feet, that meant he was spearing at a rate of more than a lionfish a minute! One the counts were made, all of the fish taken in the tournament were processed by NOAA, donating their organs to ongoing scientific research on the invasive populations. Each and every fish was then hand filleted (by scientists like me!) and given back to Libby to be served as appetizers at Bistro-by-the-Sea. Libby hopes that having lionfish on the menu will create awareness and maybe even convince locals to keep fishing for them.
The derby’s end coincided with one of the most well-known annual Beaufort events: the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament. Though it was a hot, sunny day in North Carolina, tons of people waiting in the heat to see the boats come in with their tournament catch. To spark interest in the new menu item and share the success, Libby arranged to give out free lionfish samples to the crowd that awaited the return of the fishing boats. Libby’s ace team flavored and grilled the fish, while Libby herself walked around with the tray of tasty morsels for the crowd.
I went along for moral support, but I was snagged by the Big Rock presenter to talk to the audience, online and in person, about the invasion, what scientists are doing about it, and how they, as consumers, can help. Most didn’t realize there were lionfish off North Carolina, and were clearly surprised to see me fearlessly holding a large male lionfish. I got to explain where the danger is and where it isn’t, and that they have nothing to fear when it comes eating these venomous fish freshly caught off their coast.
As Libby handed out samples, I heard a murmur of approval spread through the crowd. I asked one family what they thought of the fish, and the two kids gleefully gushed about the taste. The dad said he’d definitely buy it, if he could find it for sale somewhere. Similar responses came from every person I talked to: Tender. Flaky. Gentle flavor, not too fishy. Delicious.
With the fillets cooked and the crowd fed, it was finally time for the moment four years in the making. I had set aside a piece of lionfish, and now that the rest had been handed out, it was my turn to eat. I was by myself, standing off to the side of the grill. No one there knew just how big this was for me, but I felt the anticipation and excitement building as I held the small piece of fish. I was finally going to earn my badge. I was going to eat my study organism. Greedily, I shoved the entire piece into my mouth at once.
The crowd was right. They really are incredible. Honestly one of the softest, flakiest, and sweet tasting fish I’ve ever eaten.
With a quick swallow, it was gone. Kind of anticlimactic, really. Everyone else waited eagerly in the hot sun for the first marlin to come in. Libby had left already. The grill was beginning to cool. I sat by myself, a little disappointed that there was no one there to share my triumph with. But, as I let the tender flavor sit on my tongue, I make a silent thank you to my advisor for letting me choose my own dissertation project. Just imagine if I had ended up studying coral or plankton — yuck.
*Or, if you know a lot of scientists, you probably wouldn’t be surprised at all.
More info on the lionfish invasion:
- NOAA’s lionfish invasion research site
- National Ocean Service’s Podcasts with James Morris on the invasion, Part 1 and Part 2