lion, fish, food, earth

Fishing For Solutions

Words: Lizbeth Scordo
Photos: Courtesy of John Mirabella

How one restaurateur is saving the Atlantic with a sushi roll.

Can one little fish ruin an entire marine ecosystem? The lionfish is definitely giving it a go. These hungry hunters with venomous fin rays have been wreaking havoc in the Southern Atlantic in recent years, preying on fish and messing with the health of coral reefs. The population problem is only getting worse, thanks to their dizzying reproduction rate and a lack of known predators in the area since they’re an invasive species. (Experts theorize that people dumped unwanted lionfish into the Atlantic from home aquariums.)

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These days, there’s a growing movement to eradicate the troublesome fish, or at least slow them down. Restaurateur John Mirabella—a lifelong diver and former Navy submariner—has spent the last several years helping the cause by catching them himself and serving them up at his restaurant, Castaway Waterfront, in Marathon Key, Florida. Diving down to 200 feet to harvest them by spear isn’t easy, but neither was getting customers to try lionfish sashimi. Here, Mirabella shares how he’s managed to do both.


THE RED BULLETIN: Is spearfishing the only way to catch lionfish?

JOHN MIRABELLA: We’re not allowed to trap fish in Florida and you aren’t going to make an impact if you try to catch them on a hook and line. You have to go where they are, along the reef edge and on wrecks. The heavy population around here is between 100 and 200 feet, but most people don’t dive over 60 or 80 feet. My friends and I are deep divers so we’re able to go get the big populations.

So what is it about the deep reefs they like?

They’re ambush predators. Clouds of baby fish hover around structures, so basically it’s a fish nursery. The lionfish are there to eat juvenile fish. They have really big mouths and every time they open them, it creates a vacuum. They gobble up 20 to 30 baby fish an hour.

Have you ever been stung?

I’ve been stung a lot, especially in the early days before we had Zookeepers [a contraption that safely holds lionfish underwater]. The venom is contained in the spine and a big lionfish could have an eight-inch spine on its back. The further the spine goes in you, the more venom you get. Stings vary, but they can be very painful. It shuts you down from a sensory standpoint because you can’t cope with the pain and there’s nothing you can really do about it. It’s no fun.

How are you serving it?

I do it as nigiri, sashimi, a roll and cooked dishes. The cooked dish I made for the World Seafood Summit [where Mirabella was in a lionfish chef challenge] is called the Wreckdiver, which is the most popular way we serve it for sure, it’s basically a fancied-up piccata. I love it beer-battered, too. And then we’ve got the King of the Jungle sushi roll. I probably sell 20 or 30 of those a day because that’s what we’re known for.  

John Mirabella and Amanda Couturier diving for lionfish

© YouTube / Jerry Cowan

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How hard is it to prepare lionfish?

Once we get them in the kitchen, we use tongs again to set them on the counter, pick them up by the bottom lip and use a pair of shears to cut off all the venomous spines, and then you’re safe. It’s a slow, careful process, but once you get the spines off, it’s pretty much handled like any other fish.

What’s the customer reaction been?

It took a while to get it going. At first, nobody knew what we were talking about other than people who were divers or marine biologists. I still have people who won’t try it, but now I sell quite a bit. People like the novelty of it, they like being a part of a good, environmentally conscious movement and they like the taste of it. It’s a mild, white fish with a delicate sweet flavor. For people who can afford it, they’ll order it three different ways.

There’s a growing environmental movement to control the lionfish population, but you still don’t see them on many menus. Why not, since customers seem willing to pay a lot for it?

People sometimes wonder why it’s $40 for a plate of lionfish. On average when I catch a lionfish, most are only about a foot long and the yield is 20 percent. Grouper, for example, is around 50 percent. So I can shoot one 50-pound grouper and clean one fish that’s not venomous. Or I can spend all day shooting 100 pounds of lionfish, clean them without getting stuck and I still only get 20 pounds of filets. I don’t know anyone in the Keys trying to make a living catching lionfish.

Think the lionfish problem will ever be solved?

I’m optimistic that we can have a major impact on the lionfish invasion between the shoreline and 100 feet of water, which, here in the Keys, is about four miles out. In the deep waters, I have no idea. There’s just so much ocean out there and who knows what’s going on at 600 feet. Hopefully our worst fears don’t come true.

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