MARATHON, Fla. — John Mirabella, owner of Castaway Waterfront Restaurant and Sushi Bar, is trying to eliminate the invasive lionfish that threaten local reefs by serving it up to locals, but maybe more importantly, to tourists who visit Marathon Key.
Lionfish are native to coral reefs in the tropical waters of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, but have been multiplying in the reefs and threaten the numerous fish species that depend on the reefs to live.
They have voracious appetites, consuming 20 to 30 baby fish per hour, said Mirabella prior to serving two lionfish dishes at a Garmin and Navionics media event.
“I go spearfishing every day, weather permitting,” said Mirabella, who operates an “ocean-to-table” restaurant in what he calls the last of the true fishing villages in the Keys. “Ninety-nine percent of the lionfish you see on a plate comes from a diver.”
“They multiply rapidly,” said Mirabella.
They’re not poisonous like many people believe, but they do have 19 venomous spines that hurt when they come into contact — “I’d rather break a bone,” said Mirabella.
At a dinner sponsored by the Florida Keys and Key West tourism council, Mirabella served a sashimi dish and a sushi roll with the white, flaky fish, that has a firmer consistency than halibut.
The state of Florida has been trying to educate people about what a delicious fish it is so that it will become more well known by consumers and the target of restauranteurs like Mirabella. With no natural predators in these waters, Mirabella says he tries to get animals that won’t be harmed by the venomous spines to eat them.
“We try to teach eels to eat them, and we’ll feed them to sharks if they’re too small to serve,” said Mirabella.
Officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are putting up money and prizes to encourage anglers to help Florida's ocean ecosystems by catching lionfish this summer.
The prizes come from sponsors including American Sportfishing Association, Yamaha Motors, Marine Industries of Palm Beach County, and National Marine Manufacturers Association.
There’s a $2,000 first-place prize for the smallest and largest lionfish, $1,000 for second and $500 for third.