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MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida marine conservationists have come up with a simple recipe for fighting the invading lionfish that is gobbling up local reef life -- eat them.
The Key Largo-based REEF conservation organization has just released "The Lionfish Cookbook," a collection of 45 recipes which is the group's latest strategy to counter an invasion of the non-native reddish brown-striped fish in Florida waters.
"It's absolutely good eating -- a delicacy. It's delicately flavored white meat, very buttery," Lad Akins, director of special projects for Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), told Reuters. He authored the cookbook along with a professional chef, Tricia Ferguson.
Red lionfish, a prickly predator armed with flaring venomous spines like a lion's mane that give them their name, are native to the South Pacific, Indian Ocean and Red Sea.
With few natural predators, they have been rapidly expanding in Caribbean and Atlantic waters, voraciously preying on local fish, shrimp and crab populations across the region and in Florida, which has world-famous coral reefs.
Some scientists are now listing the invasive lionfish species among the top 15 threats to global biodiversity.
While REEF has organized local fishing "derbies" to hunt the lionfish, including handling tips and tasting sessions, Akins said making humans the invading species' top predator was the best way to fight back against the threat it posed.
"Fishermen and divers realize it's a danger to our native marine life, through its predation. But there really aren't government funds to provide bounties or removal programs. So creating a demand for the fish, a market for the fish, is in effect a de facto bounty," he told Reuters.
U.S. government researchers believe the red lionfish was introduced into Florida waters during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 when an aquarium broke and at least six fish spilled into Miami's Biscayne Bay.
The front section of the cookbook, which calls the lionfish "The Caribbean's New Delicacy," gives useful tips on collecting, handling and preparing the colorful species, as well as providing expert background on its ecological impact.
Akins says the fish, which lives among coral, can be netted, speared or caught by rod and reel, but he recommends handling them with puncture-proof gloves to avoid a painful prick from the mantle of venomous spines.
"They can be quick over a short distance, but they're not a free-swimming ocean fish like a tuna or a mackerel," he said.
Unlike the toxic Fugu pufferfish or blowfish, which is an expensive delicacy in Japan but requires careful expert preparation to avoid potentially fatal poisoning, Akins says lionfish meat is safe to eat and contains no venom.
"The venom is only in the spines. Cooking the fish would denature the venom, even if you left the spines on. It's simple enough just to cut the spines off," he said.
Akins said he hoped the cookbook could help create a commercial market for lionfish that would speed their eradication. But he wasn't sure whether the brightly colored invader would appear on the menus of Miami Beach eateries.
"It certainly is on the menu in many other countries -- the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, Dominican Republic, Mexico," he said, adding that orders for the recipe book, which can be purchased online at www.reef.org, were coming in fast.
Editing by Eric Beech