Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Restaurant Week moves forward to help environment
DESTIN – The Emerald Coast Open Lionfish Tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak, but Restaurant Week is a go.
Seven restaurants will feature lionfish in various dishes through Sept. 11 to raise lionfish awareness. Lionfish are an invasive species, meaning they are not from the Gulf of Mexico and cause harm to the environment, said Alex Fogg, the Coastal Resource Manager for Destin-Fort Walton Beach.
As the event organizer, Fogg said it made sense to move forward because restaurants are open and following CDC guidelines – plus lionfish is “very tasty.”
“We had a lot of lionfish that was not going to hold until next May, so we wanted to use it up,” Fogg said. “For the pre-tournament, there have been 4,500 collected so far. That ends up being about 2,000 lbs. of whole fish, which is about 500 lbs. of filets.”
The lionfish were donated to and split between seven participating restaurants this year: La Paz, Harbor Docks, The Gulf, Dewey Destin’s, Rockin Tacos, AJ’s Seafood & Oyster Bar and Crab Trap Destin.
La Paz opened the event Tuesday night with blood orange lionfish ceviche, lionfish street tacos, lionfish baja tacos, lionfish fajitas and lionfish chimayo – and a blood orange margarita, sans the lionfish. Managing partner Chatham Morgan said La Paz has specialized in seafood since it opened in 1993 – largely because of his family’s ownership of Harbor Docks wholesale seafood market.
“We’re able to use Gulf seafood on some of these familiar items like fajitas, quesadillas, burritos and tacos,” Morgan said. “It’s a nice spin on Gulf seafood – you’re getting away from your fried seafood baskets and your traditional Gulf seafood restaurants. It’s different.”
Morgan got involved with Restaurant Week after meeting Fogg through the diving community. Many local divers bring their catches to be prepared at La Paz.
“(Fogg) started pitching the idea about Lionfish Restaurant Week and it sounded like something that we’re really into,” Morgan said. “We love selling fresh seafood, Gulf seafood and we’re environmentally conscious. When you can harvest any Gulf seafood and practice environmental conservationism at the same time, it’s a win-win.”
The restaurant has offered lionfish before but not often.
“There’s not a bunch of people that commercially fish for lionfish so it’s not as accessible as we like it to be at seafood markets,” Morgan said. “Every time we’ve ever had it on our menu – which has probably been 10 times in the past three or four years – we sell out. There’s a demand for it. It’s just a supply issue getting it through the wholesale markets and getting it to the restaurants. I think the public wants to eat lionfish, try lionfish because it’s a wonderful tasting fish.”
Lionfish sold out quickly at the 2019 event, Fogg said.
“People obviously wanted it and they were OK with paying the price it was priced at, which is generally a little higher than your grouper and snapper,” Fogg said. “But the story is there. It’s helping the environment. It tastes really good. It’s actually really good for you, too. It’s a win, win, win for everybody.”
Many people have heard of lionfish, but don’t know much about them or are misinformed, Fogg said. And he’s a bit of an expert.
“I’ve commercially harvested lots and lots of lionfish,” Fogg said. “I did my master’s thesis on lionfish life history – so age, growth, reproduction, diet. Lionfish are my thing. Can’t get enough of these things; love ‘em – and I’m forcing all the folks in the office now to learn about them.”
The biggest misconception is that lionfish are poisonous, he said.
“They aren’t poisonous at all; they’re venomous,” Fogg said. “If you get poked by them, it hurts. It’s like a snake. A snake can bite you and it hurts, but you eating a snake or a lionfish – there’s no risk whatsoever. Pufferfish are poisonous, meaning you have to ingest in order to make yourself sick. There might be some people in the restaurant that are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I want lionfish because it’s risky to eat,’ but that’s not the case at all.”
Lionfish were first introduced in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1985 and the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, Fogg said.
“The numbers we have here in Gulf of Mexico are much higher than anywhere else in their invaded range, which makes it very good for the commercial market, but very bad for the environment,” Fogg said.
Lionfish prey on native fish species and have been shown to reduce native fish populations on some reefs by more than 90%, according to emeraldcoastopen.com.
The reason behind their large presence in the area is unknown, but there is an idea.
“People really like to have them in their aquariums,” Fogg said. “So when they either got sick of them being in their aquariums, they were moving, a hurricane came through or the lionfish ate everything in their aquarium, they got rid of them. That’s likely how they got introduced here. We don’t know the exact mechanism, because no one has come out and admitted they released a bunch of lionfish back in the ‘80s, but that’s what we suspect happened.”
Part of the reason lionfish has a higher price tag is because of how they’re harvested. Some fish are caught on hook and line, spearfishing or in nets – lionfish, not so much, Fogg said. It takes a lot of diving, training and experience to get a commercial quantity.
Some people visit the area to go lionfish fishing, and many dive shops host specific trips for it, Fogg said. There are some in small numbers in Choctawhatchee Bay and in shallow waters, but large numbers are in water about 100 feet deep.
Harvesting them is easy, because lionfish simply sit there and don’t swim away from the spear in fear. They have no predators and will eat anything that will fit in their mouths, he said.
“There’s not much sport in it, but it is fun,” Fogg said. “It’s like whack a mole.”
When it lands on the table, it benefits the environment and the diner. La Paz prepared a Mexican version, and Harbor Docks will wrap it into a sushi roll.
“Whatever your favorite fish is, I often compare it to that,” Fogg said. “Triggerfish, flounder, snapper – it tastes like all of those. It’s really versatile. It’s hard to mess up. You can cook it any way. That’s the cool thing about restaurant week – every restaurant is going to be a different way and it’s always going to be good.”
For more information, visit https://emeraldcoastopen.com/.