When Danish photographer Klaus Thymann encountered his first lionfish in the wild, he was amazed by how fearless the creature appeared. Accompanying a fisherman on a dive off the coast of Tulum, Mexico, he was at first struck by how empty of life the coral reef there seemed. But soon they spied the lionfish's fluttering fins and characteristic red and white stripes. "It just stood there, without moving," Thymann says. "Nothing eats them, so they're not afraid."
Nothing, that is, except a growing number of humans who see culinary potential as a solution to the environmental threat that the lionfish poses.
Within seconds, the diver had speared the fish, and transferred it to a pointed stick where, over the course of an hour or so, he would collect another four or five. "By the time we were done," recalls Thymann, "it looked like a fish kebab."
The reason for the fish's lack of fear has to do with the long, venom-filled spines that protrude from the lionfish's back, pelvis, and, charmingly, anus. The venom won't kill you, though the sting is so painful it can make you wish you would die. But we're not talking pufferfish-type poison here, and eating the flesh of the lionfish is perfectly safe. Safe, and inoffensive: The taste of the lionfish is so mild, it tends to take on the flavour of whatever it's cooked with. But neither its safety nor its relative status as the tofu of the sea is the primary reason why fishermen dive for it, nor why Thymann was there photographing it, nor even why a restaurant like Copenhagen's acclaimed Noma would consider putting it on the menu when it opens its pop-up in Tulum on April 12.
The primary reason for all those things is the growing awareness that eating lionfish may well be the best way to save the ecosystem of the Atlantic ocean.
Although they are indigenous to the Indo-Pacific, lionfish are staging something of a coup in the Atlantic. No one knows for sure how they got there—disenchanted aquarium owners in Florida who dumped their once-pet fish into the ocean are scientists' best bet. But by the mid-2000s, the invasive species were mounting an ecological threat in the Bahamas, the Caribbean, and as far up the US's Eastern Seaboard as North Carolina. They have since been spotted as far north as New York, and as far south as São Paolo, Brazil.
The threat comes in part from how quickly they reproduce: a female lionfish can release 30,000 eggs every four days, for a total of something like 2 million eggs per year. And all that sexing makes a girl hungry. With ferocious appetites and no natural predators, lionfish eat pretty much whatever they want—grouper, snapper, shrimp, crab, lobster, octopus, and seahorses, some 70 different species in all—and they eat a lot of it. In fact, the average specimen can consume up to 30 times the volume of its own stomach. For the lionfish, in other words, the entire Atlantic is Saturday night at the all-you-can-eat buffet.
That does not bode well for ecological balance. One study found that lionfish reduced the populations of 42 different species of fish in the Bahamas by 65 percent in just two years. "I knew what it had done in other regions," says Olmo Torres-Talamonte of the fish's grim impact. "So when fishermen started spotting it here in Tulum, we knew we had to do something."
Torres-Talamonte is the CEO and founder of Razonatura, an NGO that works on sustainability and conservation issues. Together with his colleagues, they decided that perhaps the best way of keeping the lionfish from eating up the ecological balance of Mexico's Caribbean reefs was to eat it first. The lionfish might not have any natural predators but perhaps, they thought, it could acquire some in the form of hungry diners.
For that, they would need to educate people. Because they already worked with fishing collectives, they began with fishermen, teaching divers how to hunt and safely catch (it involves careful spearfishing, and puncture-resistant containers and gloves) the showy fish. "And we're helping to create a market so that those fishermen can stop catching species that are overfished, and catch this invasive species instead."
Developing that market has meant reaching out to restaurants and chefs in Tulum, but also directly to consumers. Razonatura works with artists, for example, to get images of the gorgeous fish in public, and publishes recipes and holds cooking classes to teach home cooks how to prepare it. And they are helping to connect local collectives with distributors in larger markets like the US.
In these efforts, Razonatura is hardly alone. Eating lionfish is a strategy that others have adopted pretty much every place the little fuckers have invaded. In New York, restaurateur Ryan Chadwick not only serves it at Norman's Cay, but distributes it to other restaurants as well. In Belize, one resort named its restaurant, the Lionfish Grill, after its signature dish (a "world-famous" lionfish taco). In Colombia, chef Jorge Rausch, who serves lionfish at his acclaimed Bogotá restaurant Criterion, has also published a cookbook of lionfish recipes. And Torres-Talamonte gets inquiries all the time from southern California. "In Los Angeles, it's actually become kind of trendy," he says.
When it comes to trendsetters though, there may be no greater gastronomic influencer than Noma. So the restaurant's pop-up there represents a huge opportunity for advancing the Eat a Lionfish/Save the Ocean cause. And Noma's chefs, who take their responsibility to the environment seriously, are certainly eager to help. There's only one problem.
"It just doesn't have much flavour," says research and development chef Thomas Frebel. "We weren't super blown away by it. King crab is an invasive species too, but it's delicious. Lionfish…" He trails off. "We were thinking maybe we could use it for staff meal."
Torres-Talamonte, however, is unbowed. He admits that perhaps lionfish doesn't have a flavor "spectacular enough for a gastronomic restaurant." But its mild taste makes it perfect, he says, in curries and ceviches and traditional Mexican stews, where the other spices and seasonings stand out. It's also high in protein, and both cleaner and far less environmentally damaging than farmed fish. "It also comes with an amazing story, about stopping the destruction of our reefs," he says. "And a good story adds its own flavour."
He has a point. On March 24, the lionfish story may have gotten its biggest boost yet when a young visitor to Tulum posted a video of one on Instagram. That visitor was chef René Redzepi's nine-year-old daughter Arwen. She captioned it "Fish from #nomamexico."
This article originally appeared in Danish on MUNCHIES Denmark. All photos by Klaus Thymann.