Some folks in the Keys are fighting the Lionfish invasion, holding a fishing contest in Key Largo.
Long time Florida Keys Chef Elpidio Ornelas tossed half a stick of butter into the saute pan, and in went two white firm fillets, some pepper, and then the chef hit the pan with a big splash of white wine that produced a well-controlled fireball.
In the pan: Lionfish, and it smelled great. Chef Ornelas says lionfish tastes much like Hogfish. "Good taste, I like it." he said.
Just about anyone around Key Largo's Coconuts Resturant is aware of the lionfish and the big event on Saturday, the first of three Lionfish Diver Derbies, which are designed to attract lots of divers and fishermen all set to slaughter as many Lionfish as possible.
Why the hunt? Despite their taste, the lionfish is an outlaw, a rogue fish, an exotic intruder, a non-native invader that eats just about everything that moves around Florida's coastal reefs.
"Lionfish prey on invertebrates and juvenile fish such as grouper, snapper and other species that have high recreational, commercial, and ecological importance to coral reefs," said Andy Newman, who handles public relations for the Florida Keys Tourism Development Council.
Not only is the lionfish a native of the the Pacific Ocean, a nasty invasive species, it sports long sharp spines that can really pack a wallop if you happen to get stung.
"Got to handle them carefully," said Lad Akins of Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), who is promoting the derbies. He is out to promote public awareness of the fish and to get people to eat the fish. The hope is that the fish catches on and makes it on the menus of restaurants and into the fish markets. The more we eat, the more stable the lionfish population becomes and the impact of the the exotic looking fish is mitigated. That's the hope the folks from REEF have.
"Events like derbies are a great way to involve divers to remove lionfish, which as a bonus happen to be a little known but genuine food delicacy," said Akins.
Derby divers who remove Lionfish from waters off the Keys can rake in some real cash. Prizes will be awarded for the most fish captured, the biggest fish and the smallest fish. The big fish prize will net the winning diver $500.
Besides the lionfish derby in the Key Largo, another will be held October 16th at Keys Fisheries Restaurant & Market in Marathon and November 13th at the Hurricane Hole Marina In Key West.
And all those lionfish the divers bring in won't go to waste. They are going to be seared, fried, grilled, diced up and dumped into lime juice to produce what Chef Ornelas will tell you is some damn good ceviche.
The public is invited to taste the lionfish, and Akins hopes they want more than a taste. He hope they eventually eat up every lionfish in the Atlantic.