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Lionfish present a major threat to the local marine ecosystem due to their high rate of reproduction and feeding, which may cause a decline in the abundance of small herbivorous fish and crustaceans, which regulate the growth of algae that prevent the deterioration of coral reefs (Source: ARAP*).
According to Fundación ‘Clear This Fish,’ “Lionfish eat 30 fish every 40 minutes. They eat everything in its juvenile state such as grouper, sea bass, lobster, crab, shrimp, octopus and almost anything that fits in its mouth.”
Lionfish (Pterois volitans and P. miles), also known as scorpion fish, expel a neurotoxin that causes temporary paralysis in its enemies. That makes Panama lionfish hunters, Christian Gómez and Gabriel López Dupuis, local heroes. Gómez is a dive instructor for Scuba Panama and Dupuis is the founder of Fundación ‘Clear This Fish.’
“It is fun and legal for a scuba diver to hunt Lionfish,” said Gómez. “They are not shy. They are not afraid of people or big fish. Every time something gets close to them they just open up their fins signaling ‘Get away from me, I’m poisonous.’”
According to Dupuis, ARAP permits the killing of lionfish in Panama’s Caribbean waters and national parks.
How to prepare lionfish
The Visitor asked Chef Andrés Morataya from Manolo Caracol, the famous restaurant in Casco Antiguo, for his suggestions on how to prepare lionfish.
“A lot of people are intimidated by lionfish because it looks intimidating and they know it’s poisonous. Luckily for us, the only parts that are poisonous are the tips of the spines. The first thing I would do is to cut them off, even if you’re in the ocean, but be careful because they can still sting you. Dispose of them properly.
“Lionfish has beautiful white, flaky meat, so it goes with anything. Fillet it like any other fish, treating it as if it were red snapper. It’s super easy to skin, which is the way I prefer to work with it.”
A quick carpaccio
“Slice the lionfish as thin as possible and place on a serving dish. Using a zester, sprinkle lime zest over the sliced fish, then drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper. The zest gives you citrus flavor without cooking the fish like a traditional ceviche would.”
Pan seared lionfish with cashew sauce
“Especially if it’s a thick fillet, I like to cook my fish almost all the way through on one side, about 5 – 6 minutes depending on the size, to create a nice, thick crust. Flip it over to finish cooking for just a minute or so.
“Cashew sauce complements this dish nicely. Place around 100 g of toasted cashew nuts, a couple of cloves of garlic, lime juice, salt pepper, olive oil and water in a food processor and blend until it reaches a consistency between tahini and hummus.”
Tips on lionfish hunting
The fact that lionfish are slow swimmers makes them easy to hunt. The tricky part is handling the lionfish while avoiding the spines.
“If a spine does stick you, apply a hot liquid, like hot coffee, to the wound as treatment,” said Gómez. “Because the neurotoxin is not thermally stable, it breaks down with heat to become an amino acid. Use any hot liquid above 30 degrees Celsius,” added Dupuis.
Roger J. Muller Jr., a visiting lionfish hunter from New Jersey, was stung by a lionfish during a dive in Portobelo on May 31, 2014. “I was ready to cut my finger off, it hurt so bad,” said Muller, an accomplished diver with 84 certifications in scuba.
“At ‘Clear This Fish,’ we train divers on land how to use the Hawaiian sling. We train divers in water how and where to hunt lionfish using a Containment Unit called the ZooKeeper to be able to handle lionfish safely,” said Dupuis.
“Just because the fish is dead, doesn’t mean it’s safe to handle,” said Allie ElHage, the creator and manufacturer of ZooKeeper, the leading lionfish containment unit used in areas of the world invaded by lionfish.
According to both Dupuis and Gómez, the venom starts to break down and becomes less harmful 30 to 40 minutes after the lionfish dies. But if you keep the fish on ice, that delays the breakdown of the venom.
Fundación ‘Clear This Fish’ is on a mission to teach people on how to catch and handle the fish for sale in coastal communities. “People don’t know that this fish is good to eat, with white meat that’s very easy to fillet and very versatile for cooking,” said Dupuis.
“If we don’t create a market for the sale of lionfish, we are going to be in big trouble in four or five years, as the fish destroys so much of the marine life in Panama,” he added.
For more information on lionfish hunting and training, contact Scuba Panama or Fundación Clear This Fish on Facebook.
*Aquatic Resource Authority of Panama