MOREHEAD CITY — At Bistro by the Sea Wednesday evening, 40 guests got to try a new type of seafood and help with a project to control an invasive species in North Carolina.
The bistro, along with N.C. Sea Grant, Carteret Catch, Discovery Diving and the Eastern Carolina Artificial Reef Association, held a tasting of a potential new item for the bistro’s menu: lionfish.
This species has been invading the waters of the Atlantic coast since the 1980s, so in an effort to keep them in check, the tasting hosts have been working on creating a market and a commercial fishery.
The bistro’s guests came from around this county, as well as neighboring Craven and Onslow counties. Libby Eaton, co-owner and operator of Bistro by the Sea, said they were invited from a pool of the bistro’s regular customers, as well as local marine scientists.
The menu for the evening consisted of an appetizer and an entrée, both with lionfish as the main ingredient, provided by Discovery Diving. Tim Coyne, co-owner and head chef of the bistro, said once you learn to get around the lionfish’s venomous quills, it’s a good, simple fish to work with in the kitchen.
“Filleting it is a little more of a challenge than other fish,” he said.
For the appetizer, Mr. Coyne and his staff made lionfish sliders – small lionfish fillets in a light tempura batter on mini toasted buns served with an Asian coleslaw. For the entrée, they made a lionfish mousse with spring vegetables sandwiched between two lionfish fillets with a scampi glaze.
N.C. Sea Grant funded the tasting. Barry Nash, Sea Grant’s seafood technology and marketing specialist, said they’d need to go over the written survey results collected on score sheets provided to each guest, but what the guests said during the tasting was promising.
“The verbal results tell me people like the product and would buy it,” he said, “which is the purpose of this project.”
Among the guests were Ray Harris of Stella and his wife, Frankie. Mr. Harris said he thought it was one of the best meals he’s had in a long time.
“The fish could go on top of anything, and the flavor could carry itself,” he said.
Sheilia Griffis of Morehead City and her husband, Dick, also took part in the tasting. Ms. Griffis said she thought the lionfish was delicious.
“I think it’s one of the best fish I’ve ever eaten,” she said. “I’d pay top dollar for it. The texture was perfect and it wasn’t too fishy.”
During dinner, several guests said lionfish is similar to flounder with a mild flavor and a soft texture. Some said the texture was “flaky and not mushy.” Some thought that the appetizer might have been better without the bun, possibly on a bed of coleslaw.
Ms. Eaton said they decided to host the lionfish tasting because she wants to help combat the lionfish invasion by serving it at her restaurant and create a viable commercial fishery for local watermen. Ms. Eaton is one of the founders of the lionfish spearfishing tournament called “If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Eat ‘em,” going on its third year from Friday, May 29, through Sunday, June 7.
Ms. Eaton said she’d like to add lionfish to her menu as a regular item, if they can develop a commercial fishery for them. Currently harvesting is too expensive because there hasn’t been commercial fishing gear developed that can reliably catch lionfish. Only spearfishing seems to work, and that requires scuba divers.
Dr. Janelle Fleming, an oceanographer, CEO of Seashore Coastal Consulting and member of the Eastern Carolina Artificial Reef Association, told the guests at the tasting about the lionfish invasion going on in North Carolina and along the Atlantic coast. The invasion started in the 1980s. While the exact cause is no longer certain, it’s largely believed to be the result of lionfish being released from aquariums in southern Florida.
“They have one of the first established populations (of lionfish) here in North Carolina,” Dr. Fleming said.
Lionfish are most often found in deep waters, as far down as 130 feet. Lionfish are long-lived, some living for several decades. They have a high temperature tolerance, though water temperatures seem to dictate where they’re found.
Lionfish become sexually mature in about one year, with a larval stage of about 25 days after hatching. Once mature, the fish will release eggs once every four days, which are then carried by the ocean currents.
Dr. Fleming said the big issue with lionfish in local waters is the impact to the ecology.
“They can live in high density; over 200 adults per acre,” she said. “They’re generalist carnivores. They’ll eat anything. They consume over 70 species, including commercially important species, and have no known predators in the Atlantic.”
Dr. Fleming said lionfish populations have become so firmly established in the Atlantic, there isn’t any way to eradicate them at this point. Instead, researchers like Dr. Fleming and her colleagues are looking for ways to control the lionfish through commercial fishing and consumption.
“We know we can spearfish them,” she said. “Now we need to see if we can come up with a commercial fishery.”
To that end, Dr. Fleming and her colleagues are using a grant from N.C. Sea Grant to design and test fish traps to find a design that can catch lionfish. So far the most promising design has been a modified Maine lobster trap.
Dr. Fleming said they deployed test traps in May of 2014 and retrieved them that June. The traps each had four to six lionfish in them and had others swimming around the traps when they retrieved them. The only issue was in order to collect them, the researchers still had to send down divers.
Some bycatch was found in the traps with the lionfish along with a few spiny and slipper lobsers, some sea snails and a few grouper. However, Dr. Fleming said the amounts of bycatch weren’t concerning compared to other fishing gears.
The researchers re-deployed the test traps last June, but lost their traps in Hurricane Arthur the next month. Dr. Fleming said, however, the traps are designed to fall apart after about a month to prevent ghost fishing.
Dr. Fleming said she and her colleagues have received an exempted fishing permit from the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries to continue their research. She said they plan to re-deploy more test traps in a month.
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