Lonely Planet Writer

Could eating venomous lionfish help save the world's oceans?

A venomous fish may not be what you expect to see on a restaurant menu, but thanks to the Lionfish Project in Tulum, Mexico, adventurous eaters can tuck in right in, and help marine conservation in the process.

A lionfish (pterois volitans). Image by Albert Kok at Dutch Wikipedia
A lionfish (pterois volitans). Image by Albert Kok at Dutch Wikipedia

Part of the scorpion family, the invasive lionfish has toxic poison in its dorsal spine, which can give humans an intense sting that lasts for up to 10 hours. “It’s very painful,” explained Olmo Torres-Talamante, an ambassador of the Lionfish Project, “you’ll want to cut your hand off”. However, he claims that carefully catching, preparing and eating these intimidating ocean predators could help rebalance sea life in our ocean reefs.

Native to the Indo-Pacific region, the invasive lionfish somehow made its way to Mexico’s Caribbean seas in the 1990s. Multiplying at astonishing rates, these aggressive feeders sit camouflaged in the reef and prey on marine life like small fish and baby lobsters as they’re swimming by. One female lionfish can lay as many as 30,000 eggs every four days and up to 2 million eggs per year. With no known natural predators, the lionfish population is massively upsetting the natural balance of the reefs.

Torres-Talamante, CEO of NGO Razonatura, encourages local fishermen, restaurants, hotels and dive companies in Mexico’s Quintana Roo to catch and cook the lionfish. Competent divers can also join Koox and Mexidivers on a thrilling spear fishing trip off the coast of Tulum to hunt the overpopulated species.

“By going lionfish hunting, you will be helping the reef and helping the world,” said Torres-Talamante, “plus, you’ll get to eat really good ceviche and fish tacos and have a lot of fun.” Meanwhile, non-divers can tuck into a Mexican-flavoured lionfish plate at many Tulum restaurants including Simple and Ukami. “It tastes really good,” said Torres-Talamante. “It’s white meat and very high in protein, compared to farmed fish. My favourite way to eat it is in ceviche or as sashimi.”

Liva and the Lionfish created by artists Celeste Byers and Aaron Glasson in collaboration with Residencia Gorila.
Liva and the Lionfish created by artists Celeste Byers and Aaron Glasson in collaboration with Residencia Gorila.

With gastronomic events, lionfishing competitions and plenty of these morsels on local menus, locals hope to transform Tulum into a destination known for its lionfish cuisine. Local art group Residencia Gorila has created eye-catching murals around town to promote the Lionfish Project, and help in the effort to save local marine life. Liva and the Lionfish (at Crucero Zona Arqueologica km 131, Tulum 77780) depicts a giant female hunter in action as colourful, stripy lionfish float by.

Torres-Talamante would like to see international distribution for Mexican lionfish. But although the population of the lionfish is huge in these waters, there is currently not enough of a supply for wider dispensation. In only few years, the Lionfish Project has made progress in clearing lionfish from the shallow reefs around Quintana Roo, using techniques, but the lionfish population in deeper waters is growing and the local fishing industry is yet to find a sustainable method for catching the lionfish at deep depths in commercial volumes, without fishing other species in the process. Torres-Talamante welcomes new fishing technology that could help.

For now, the aim is to spread awareness. Aside from travelling to Tulum to hunt and eat lionfish, people can help the project on a local level. “Go and ask for lionfish [in your restaurants and markets]” explains Torres-Talamante, “as consumers, we can create a demand for lionfish.” If the demand is high, suppliers will find a way to stock it, in turn helping to slow down the diminishing marine life in our oceans.