How catching + eating invasive fish can impact Alabama Gulf Seafood

When you’re browsing the seafood section at your local grocer or perusing the fresh catches on the menu of your favorite restaurant, you might think you’re making a simple choice. In reality, when you choose Alabama Gulf seafood, you’re making an impact on our state’s own Gulf waters. And when you choose Lionfish, specifically, you’re positively affecting the native fish that call the Gulf home.

Lionfish are a venomous, invasive (yet beautiful) fish species that primarily feed on smaller fish. You may have seen Lionfish with their distinctive spines and stripes in an aquarium, but in the Gulf, they’re a threat to native fish. Alongside feeding on native fish, Lionfish use valuable resources that native fish would otherwise use.

The story of the invasive Lionfish offers a valuable learning lesson to limit future invasive species. By being intentional about not releasing exotic species into the ocean or reservoirs where they’re not native, each person can help prevent more invasive species from consuming vital aquatic resources in and around the Gulf.

While Lionfish will never be eradicated from the Gulf, there are ways to learn from their invasion and mitigate their impact according to Dr. Mark Albins, a Research Professor in the Stokes School of Marine and Environmental Sciences at the University of South Alabama.

“There are many opportunities for folks to get involved and do their part. There are organized events like Lionfish derbies and fishing tournaments with special prizes for the biggest or the most lionfish caught. Folks can also get involved in recreational fishing for Lionfish” Dr. Albins explained, "Lionfish are typically caught by spear rather than hook-and-line angling."

And if you want to help mitigate the spread of Lionfish, there’s something even easier, and more delicious, you can do: eat it.

“People can look for Lionfish in supermarkets and at restaurants,” added Dr. Albins. “It’s always nice to have a wonderful meal. It’s even better to know that, at the same time, you are helping to protect native fishes and the environment.”

Despite its unique look, the flesh of Lionfish is mild, flaky and white—and depending on how you cook it, its mildness takes on the flavors of the sauce and ingredients you use to prepare it.

At Automatic Seafood and Oysters, the Birmingham-based restaurant helmed by James Beard Award-winning Chef Adam Evans, Lionfish is on the menu throughout the year.

Chef de Cuisine Jacobi Williams started his culinary career because of the joy he found in watching people’s reactions to a delicious dish and in simplifying difficult processes. In preparing dishes like Lionfish, he takes an invasive, venomous fish and transforms it into an unforgettable meal.

Chef de Cuisine Jacobi Williams

Photo: Wes Frazer

We went to Automatic to get a behind-the-scenes look at everything that goes into bringing Lionfish from the Gulf to your plates. Preparing Lionfish always starts with removing the venomous spines with gloves for safety, but from there, it can take on different forms. Serve it sashimi-style, deep fry it or sauté it.

Chef Williams prepared Lionfish a la Plancha with a lemongrass and chili puree and a side of roasted vegetables, and it was without a doubt one of the most delicious dishes we’ve tried. No matter how it’s prepared, you’ll get to enjoy the flavors of the sweet, buttery fish, because at Automatic, the chefs focus on letting the protein shine.

Photo: Wes Frazer

Photo: Wes Frazer

The goal is "to find a way to allow the protein to be highlighted through the preparation of the dish," according to Chef Williams. Rather than overshadowing the seafood with too many ingredients or difficult steps, the freshness of the fish comes through with simple preparation. When you order it, or anything else on the menu, you know you’re supporting the people who help our Gulf — from processors to chefs.

"We can all learn a lesson from the lionfish and play a part in preventing invasive species in the future," concluded Dr. Albins. And we’re thankful the part we can play now involves eating delicious seafood.

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