BATROUN, Lebanon — Blaring music filled the air and the smell of the grilling fish overwhelmed the small beach. Dozens of people gathered around the grill to watch as the juices bubbled and dripped from the lionfish’s skin.
The Lebanese NGO Diaries of the Ocean launched its “Eat the Lionfish” campaign at Colonel Beer, a brewery and restaurant in the seaside city of Batroun, on May 11 in an effort to raise awareness about the lionfish and the significant threat it poses to the Mediterranean Sea ecosystem.
The lionfish was first spotted in Lebanese waters in 2012 after entering from the Red Sea through the Suez Canal. Jina Talj, the NGO’s founder, told Al-Monitor, “Since then, it has spread everywhere along the coastline, especially in rocky shores, and most of our shoreline is rocky. Like 80% of it is rocky, so there’s lionfish everywhere.”
Talj added that the lionfish has no natural predators in the Mediterranean and is able to rapidly reproduce because of that. The lionfish produces eggs all year and a single female can produce up to 2 million eggs in that time.
“It has a ferocious appetite and it eats everything,” Talj explained. “They can revert to cannibalism if they don’t find enough food to eat.”
She said one of the lionfish that they were going to cook today had a baby lionfish in its mouth when they opened it.
“They are monsters!” she exclaimed.
Since the lionfish will eat most other fish and sea life, they threaten other species in Lebanese waters and could dominate the Mediterranean.
According to Talj, the lionfish's numbers are still low, so there is still time to “prevent an ecological disaster” if people take action and one way of doing this is to eat it.
“They have very tasty meat, very nutritious. So we can increase pressure on the lionfish and control its population that way and, at the same time, we would be benefitting the fishermen,” Talj explained. “We would be creating an extra source of income for them and at the same time ridding our sea of this pest.”
Talj and Diaries of the Ocean held the event not only to promote their “Eat the Lionfish” campaign, but also to introduce Lebanese people to the invasive fish and to allow them to taste it.
“First of all, not many people know about it,” she said, adding, “Even fishermen! So part of our campaign is introducing fishermen to the lionfish, guiding them and supporting them with the lionfish because most of them are scared of it because of its spines. Whenever they catch it, they release it back to the sea, which is not good. It is the opposite of what we want.”
Prior to the campaign, members of Diaries of the Ocean talked with fishermen about the lionfish. They explained how to find the fish and the best methods and tools to catch it. They are also trying to convince restaurants to offer the lionfish on their menus so that the fishermen will have more incentives to catch them.
However, due to its venomous spines, the fish has a reputation as dangerous and not edible. However, the spines are the only venomous part, and they must pierce the skin to inject the venom.
Talj explained, “Once we cut out the 18 venomous spines, the meat is perfectly safe to eat. Even if you keep a tiny bit of the spine or you do not clean it properly, once you heat it, the heat will … denature the venom. So it is still safe to eat.”
Over 132 pounds of lionfish were caught along the Lebanese coast and grilled during the event, but with over 100 in attendance, each were only able to get a small taste.
Lionfish is grilled at an event in Batroun, Lebanon, May 11, 2019. (Diaries of the Ocean)
The lionfish was provided in part by the Dive the Med Club, a freediving and scuba school in Batroun. Volunteers took a week off of work to catch the fish. The club’s managing director, Kamal Greig, hopes that more people will demand lionfish be served in restaurants.
Greig told Al-Monitor, “Hopefully the taste will stick in their minds and they will start asking for it. And once they do, we’ve created a demand for that fish. And then the other part is teaching the fishermen to safely do the catch, giving them the equipment that they need, and therefore, you complete the cycle.”
He explained that the fish is not difficult to catch since it relies on its spines for protection and is not quick to flee. The challenge comes in locating the fish since it prefers deeper waters.
Since the lionfish will eat nearly anything, Greig said that he and his colleagues have already begun to see the devastating effects that it can have on the sea’s ecosystem.
“We have seen a huge decline in all of the local species,” he said solemnly. “This has pushed us. It has given us motivation to stop what we are doing because we feel the threat. We feel that if we don’t do anything about it, in 10 years’ time, we are not going to see anything but lionfish. Eventually it is going to be a disaster for the ecosystem.”
“Colonel [Beer] already added a lionfish dish to the menu,” she said. “This is one of the objectives of the campaign, to make restaurants start selling it. Fishermen in the Batroun area helped us catch the lionfish for the event. They know about it now and that Colonel is selling it, and they know that people will be demanding the lionfish.”
Jamil Haddad, the owner of Colonel Beer, was quick to express his support for the campaign.
“Look, we are part of the sea life,” Haddad told Al-Monitor. “This invasive species, it’s killing, it’s eating all of the other local species. … We have a responsibility. And our responsibility is to create awareness about this fish and also creating a demand for this fish.”
Haddad said that he was going to price lionfish on the menu lower than all of the other fish so that people will try it.
He said, “You can see all of the people who came for this event because they really care about nature and the sea, about the balance in the water. And people want to order it, so I believe that if you know how to market it and we really explain to people what the difficulties are, then people will order it. If not, then I will eat it every day.”
There appeared to already be an increase in demand, according to Talj, who said that people were already approaching her and Diaries of the Ocean and asking them to hold similar events in their areas.
She smiled, “They know that fishermen are catching lionfish in their area, so they want to give their support.”