Swap Your Turkey for a “Turkeyfish” This Thanksgiving

A lionfish dish is laid out and ready to eat.

Lionfish, cooked and prepared for dinner.

Credit: 

©Erin Spencer

Thanksgiving is one of those uniquely American holidays – a time for thankful reflection and Olympic-style feasting. With the holidays right around the corner, are you salivating over the thought of aromatic turkey and gravy yet?

Now what if you swapped that bird out for something a little different: lionfish.

If this sounds drastically unconventional, consider that the first pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts partook in an impressive seafood medley as part of their inaugural dinner: lobster, eel, clams, mussels, and even the occasional fish pie. Of course, these dishes have fallen out of vogue since 1621, while others like corn and green beans have remained perennial favorites.

A Growing Threat

Lionfish, colloquially termed the “turkeyfish”, are not only delicious (their meat boasts a buttery taste and flaky texture), but they also pose one of the greatest threats as an invasive species to the southeast coast of the United States, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico. Originally from the Indo-Pacific, experts aren’t certain how they made it to the western Atlantic; however humans were almost certainly responsible. Beautifully ornate but with highly venomous spines, lionfish were kept in home aquariums. Some speculate that people have been dumping unwanted pet lionfish into natural ecosystems for at least 25 years. Without any natural predators, lionfish encounter few limitations in their adopted home. Tropical creatures, their distribution continues to expand due to warming oceans.  

Then there’s its prolific ability to breed.

“One female can produce over 2 million eggs over the course of a year,” notes Erin Spencer, National Geographic Young Explorer and marine scientist specializing in invasive species. “And one female and all of her offspring can produce 8.1 quintillion eggs in a year.” (For reference, one quintillion is made up of a 1 followed by 18 zeros.)

This perfect invasive storm is intensified by the lionfish’s insatiable diet. “They eat over 70 species of fish and many invertebrates—several species of which are commercially and ecologically important,” adds Spencer. Native predators, like sharks and larger fish, appear to avoid lionfish, enabling them to decimate a prey population by as much as 90 percent in heavily invaded areas.


Lionfish are referred to as turkeyfish because, depending on how you view them, their spines can resemble the plumage of a turkey. 

Credit: 

©Erin Spencer

Win-Win Solutions

Thankfully, creative measures are being taken to curb this growing threat. “As the first marine reef fish invasive species to this region, lionfish are changing the culture of how reef managers view invasive species, the regional connectivity of marine reefs, and their vulnerability to marine invasions" says NOAA ecologist Dr. James A. Morris, Jr., via the Invasive Lionfish Web Portal.

In an effort to address the problem, lionfish derbies are springing up around the southeastern shore where spearfishers can complete for cash prizes along with the coveted title of “Lionfish King”. This year’s winner single-handedly removed 3,324 lionfish bringing the local total up to over 100,000.

Others have recognized a market opportunity for lionfish fillets, which are considered a delicacy. “If you go to a restaurant and order lionfish instead of, say grouper, that helps relieve fishing pressure on grouper and create a demand for invasive lionfish of which there’s more than enough to supply the market,” says Spencer. One New York-based company is helping drive the industry by linking up with fishers to create a national distribution network for lionfish outside of Florida.  

Some communities in the Caribbean have even been able to increase the landing value of lionfish by removing their venomous spines and fashioning custom jewelry from them. “It kills three birds with one stone,” explains Spencer. “First, fishermen are now able to sell the fins and spines, (which are normally discarded) so they’re fetching a higher price for each fish. Next, it spreads awareness about lionfish, because women are selling this jewelry in busy tourist areas; and lastly, it’s a huge opportunity for women’s empowerment.”  

What Can You Do?

There are many small things people can do to make a big difference:

•    You’re well on your way to getting more informed about the issue—be sure to check out our supplemental links.  

•    Find your own local community efforts to remove lionfish and support them.

•    Help NOAA record lionfish distribution by reporting any lionfish sightings.

•    Last by not least, eat lionfish! Lionfish can be prepared a number of different ways: pan seared, fried, baked, and even raw. We’ve included one of our favorites below:

Castaway’s Wreck Diver-style Lionfish

Courtesy of Erin Spencer and Castaway Waterfront Restaurant and Sushi Bar in Marathon Key, Florida

Ingredients:

42 ounces lionfish fillets, patted dry

flour (for coating)

5 cloves garlic, diced

2½ cups chopped tomatoes

5 tsp. capers

1/2 cup white wine

1/4 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice

2 T. chopped fresh basil parsley or kale for garnish lemon wedge for garnish

Preparation: Dredge fillets in flour to lightly dust. Place in sauté pan with small amount of hot butter over medium heat. Cook first side, careful not to burn. Turn over fish when golden, and reduce heat while adding garlic, tomatoes, capers, white wine and lemon juice. Cover to hold steam in and cook until fish is fork-tender. Add basil and serve immediately. Garnish with sprig of parsley or kale and lemon wedge.

More lionfish recipes here.

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If you’re in-it-to-win-it, and want to host an invasive species-themed Thanksgiving, check out some other appetizing menu items like Northern Snakehead and Louisiana crawfish.

So this Thanksgiving, when you’re breaking bread with beloved family and friends, remember to support conservation efforts and cook up a lionfish… or ten. It’s no Norman Rockwell painting, but it’s what the pilgrims would have wanted.