Diners Dig Into Invasive Lionfish, But Do They Really Care About Saving Coral Reefs?

red lionfish pterois volitans indonesia photo
A red lionfish seen at the Tasik Ria diving resort in Manado, Indonesia. Photo by Jens Petersen via Wikimedia Commons.

To consumers trying to eat responsibly, supermarket shelves and restaurant menus can sometimes seem like minefields of "don'ts." Don't order that blue fin tuna; it's overfished. Don't eat that non-organic peach; it's loaded with pesticides. Don't buy that chicken; it was raised on a factory farm. So it's really not much of a surprise that when a group of people were told, "Eat this fish and help save the environment," they jumped at the chance.

Serving up this particular invasive species and inviting diners to help protect an ecosystem by chowing down was the brainchild of Sean Dimin, one of the owners of Sea to Table, a New York-based company that helps local fishermen from sustainable wild fisheries in Alaska, Tobago, and the Gulf Coast of the U.S. find better markets for their catch.

The Trouble With Lionfish
Dimin's target, writes The Economist, is the red lionfish, a colorful species with poisonous spines that can, when introduced into a new environment, decimate the local population of other small fish in a matter of weeks. A trouble-maker in the Florida Keys, lionfish are also harming coral reef biodiversity -- and the tourism and diving industry -- in the Caribbean. Since the lionfish have no natural predators, Dimin got the idea to create one: people.

Inspired by "the appearance in some resorts of 'lionfish rodeos,' in which holidaymaking divers round the fish up, and which are usually followed by lionfish cook-ups on the beach," The Economist writes, Dimin learned that the de-spined fish are good eatin' and sold a few Chicago and New York chefs on the concept of adding them to their menus. The lionfish were a hit, not just for their snapper-life taste, but, according to one chef, "the story of the fish and the fact that eating it supports a conservation effort added to the appeal of the dish."

Consumerism vs. Conservation
While this seems like a win-win (well, except for the environmental cost of transporting the fish), it reminds me of some survey results I read about a few years ago, as this whole idea of eco-friendly lifestyles was just starting to take off. The researchers found that the survey participants projected a whole host of negative attributes -- poor, lower class, sexually unattractive -- onto people engaging in activities such as using a clothesline or taking the bus.

The only environmentally responsible behavior that had positive associations was recycling -- perhaps, I suspected, because having more to recycle shows you have the means to consume more in the first place. Similarly, it's hard not to wonder in the lionfish case, did the idea of eating something new and potentially trendy add more to "the appeal of the dish" than the conservation effort itself?

More about invasive species:
The World's Most Lovable Invasive Species (Slideshow)
From the Forums: Why Does 'Invasive' Have to Mean Bad?
International Group Proposes Measures to Stop Invasive Species
How Your Backyard Photos Can Help Scientists Control the Spread of Invasive Species
Epic Fail: Efforts to Fight Invasive Species Could Cause 'Ecosystem Meltdown'
Invasive Species: Another Reason to Worry about Biofuels
Zimbabwe Fights Back Against Invasive Species
Burn it Where You Buy it to Stop Invasive Species
'All Aboard' - Two New Invasive Species Per Year Entering US

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