In the waters of the Caribbean Sea, a voracious invasive species called the lionfish is threatening to overtake the reefs.
Conservation groups are fighting back with an unusual approach. "Eat them to beat them," is their slogan, and they're urging chefs and diners to enjoy the unwelcome fish as a tasty delicacy.
The lionfish is native to the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans. It came to the United States as a popular aquarium fish. But in the past decade, lionfish released into the wild have invaded coral reefs in the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.
These ravenous fish eat everything in their path, says Lad Akins, with the marine conservation group Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF).
"They eat other fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and octopus. Almost anything that moves and will go into that mouth, even up to half their own body size, is potential prey."
Lionfish populations have exploded in the past few years. They're eating so much that they're pushing out native reef species. The U.S. oceans agency, NOAA, says they pose a serious threat to commercially valuable fish like snapper and grouper, and put added stress on coral reef ecosystems that are already under pressure from pollution and climate change.
Experts want to turn the tables on this hungry predator.
NOAA has launched the "Eat Lionfish" campaign and is working to put the invasive fish on the menu at top U.S. restaurants.
"The flesh is actually very light and delicate," Akins says. "It's not strong flavored. So you can season it many different ways. It's a great eating fish."
Akins says REEF is putting together a lionfish cookbook, due out this summer.
But he cautions that lionfish may be a pricey delicacy. "It's not like a traditional fishery where you can collect them in a large net," he says. Lionfish are caught by labor-intensive spearfishing.
"It's a bit expensive to get the fish," he says. "But it's worth it because they're so good eating. I think we're going to see a market develop for lionfish as a delicacy. And people are going to pay a premium for it."
Promoting unsustainable fishing
At a time when environmental groups are warning about over-fishing, it's unusual for a conservation group to encourage fishers to decimate a species. But Akins says this is one fishery that should not be sustainable.
"We don't want to create a fishery that protects this fish and maintains stocks of this fish for the restaurants," he says. "The goal is, eat them to beat them, and eat them until they're gone."
But invasive species expert Dan Simberloff at the University of Tennessee is skeptical.
"It's a foolish idea, and it won't work," he says. There's a long history of people suggesting culinary control of invasive species, "And historically, these really haven't worked at all."
For example, an invasive South American rodent called the nutria is destroying wetlands across the southeastern United States. Famous New Orleans chefs have come up with recipes for cooking nutria, but that's done nothing to control the pest. Simberloff says it's just too hard to get people to eat a new food.
But Akins says lionfish already is on the menu in some restaurants in the Caribbean. And he says people in the United States will be willing to pay for it, not only because a cooked lionfish tastes good, but also because it's good for the reefs.