SEAFOODNEWS.COM [SF Chronicle] by Tara Duggan - January 5, 2017
Justine Burt calls herself “borderline vegetarian.” The Palo Alto resident makes an exception for lionfish, which she first tried during a community service trip to Belize, where the invasive species has taken over barrier reef habitats.
“I don’t normally eat sentient creatures, but this one needs to be eaten,” she said. “Because it’s really destroying life down there.”
It didn’t hurt that the fish tastes light, flaky and buttery. Thanks to Burt’s year-and-a-half campaign since returning from that trip, lionfish achieved “Best Choice” status from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which helps consumers make more sustainable food choices, and is available by special order from Whole Foods. At Fish restaurant in Sausalito, executive chef Douglas Bernstein recently began bringing in another invasive species, Asian carp, from the Mississippi River Basin to serve in fish tacos.
New to the region, the two species are part of a growing sustainable seafood movement that unites Caribbean divers and Kentucky fishers with Bay Area diners through a simple idea: Eat invasive fish to help eradicate them.
Asian carp is the generic name for four species of fish that originally were brought from Asia decades ago to filter aquaculture ponds in Arkansas. Lionfish arrived around the same time from its native Indo-Pacific region as an aquarium pet. In a scene seemingly out of “Finding Nemo,” the fish either escaped or were released into local waterways: the carp into the Mississippi River Basin and the lionfish into the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. With staggering rates of reproduction and no natural predators, each has taken over its adopted habitat, devouring native fish and plant life.
Creating a viable market for these invasive fish is one sure way of removing at least some of them from the environment. Both Asian carp and lionfish have been on menus in the East Coast for several years, via purveyors like Norman’s Lionfish who are closer to the source, but they’re new to the Bay Area.
“During the winter we usually have a hard time finding a lot of finfish to keep the menu diverse. This is a perfect plug-in for our fish tacos,” said Bernstein of Asian carp. The pink, meaty fish almost tastes like tuna but has a flaky, tender texture. He goes through about 400 pounds of it a week.
The Bay Area has plenty of invasive marine species of its own, brought in by container ships, but they aren’t good to eat. For example, the overbite clam has colonized the San Francisco Bay and Delta, consuming more than its share of phytoplankton and filtering pollutants — not what you’d want to put on your pasta.
But lionfish and Asian carp are another story. Fisher Ronnie Hopkins, who lives in Ledbetter, KY, has been catching Asian carp in local lakes and rivers since the 1980s, when he saw how the fish, which originally escaped into Southern waterways during flooding, began crowding out the native species that his father and grandfather caught for a living.
“I seen how fast these things were going to grow and how good they were to eat,” said Hopkins, 66, in a growly Kentucky drawl. “I started fighting to build a market for them.”
He originally shipped them to Asia, and then his market grew to New York, California and Chicago. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife has encouraged fishers like him by helping establish three new local processing plants for Asian carp in 2015, which led to the harvest of 1.2 million pounds of it that year.
Bighead carp, one type of Asian carp, is already found in 23 states, while silver carp has been found in the waters of 17 states, according to the National Wildlife Federation, which monitors the invasive species’ steady movement toward the Great Lakes. There are some electrical barriers to try to keep the carp from entering the lakes via the Chicago water system, but the organization has proposed creating physical barriers that it says are more effective.
Marc Smith, policy director for the National Wildlife Federation, said preventing the fish from entering new environments is more of a priority than encouraging fishing.
“You’re never going to fish them down to extinction,” he said. “We think it’s fine for states to encourage fishing them. We just don’t think a lot of money should be going to that.”
Yet with so many types of protein problematic from a sustainability standpoint, it can be a boon for a seafood purveyor to find a product whose consumption has a positive impact, rather than a negative one, on the environment.
One lionfish, for example, can produce 2 million eggs a year. Scientists believe they were originally released into the Western Atlantic by pet owners, and it didn’t take long for them to begin eating up the phytoplankton native fish depend on — and the native fish, too.
The downside to serving lionfish is its venomous spines, which resemble billowing red and white feathers underwater. The spines do not cause the fish to be unsafe to eat — and are removed when you buy lionfish at the store — but can cause severe pain and swelling.
“We brought it in whole once and my fishmonger got stung,” said Bernstein, who had to send him home and finish the job himself, very slowly. Ultimately, that made it too cost-prohibitive to serve on a regular basis, which is a shame, Bernstein said. (However, it’s relatively affordable at Whole Foods, at $11.99 a pound for whole cleaned fish.)
Lionfish is “one of the most amazingly delicious fish I’ve tried,” said Bernstein, describing it as clean and sweet, perfect for ceviche. “I wish I could have it on the menu every day.”
Asian carp, though very bony and also difficult to clean, costs less and is more reliable. But it could take a while for it to be fully accepted. When Susan Lindsay of Corte Madera came into Fish for tacos on a recent December day, she said the Asian carp tasted great, but she wasn’t sure about the name.
“Carp sounds like garbage fish,” she said.
Hopkins points out Asian carp is not a bottom feeder like common carp. But he understands the attitude. After all, the fish did kind of come out of nowhere.
“They’re clean. They’re freshwater fish. They’re all-natural. They’ve got everything going for them,” he said. “It’s just getting the public to try something new.”