Whole Foods just expanded its seafood department in a way that could help preserve underwater reefs along the Florida coast.
The grocery chain has begun selling fresh lionfish, a prickly, non-native species with 18 venomous spines, reports The Sun Sentinel. Employees at stores carrying the fish have been trained to remove the spines, leaving white fish meat that’ll go for $8.99 per pound through the end of May and $9.99 per pound starting June 1.
For now, lionfish is only available in Whole Foods’ 26 Florida locations, as there is no established supply chain for catching and transporting lionfish across the US. That’s mostly because it’s a tough fish to catch.
“It has to be caught with individual divers,” said a Whole Foods spokeswoman, who described fishermen wielding spears and planting traps to capture the lionfish. Because obtaining the catch can be so cumbersome, there are no large-quantity orders yet.
“It’s actually something we’re really eager to help figure out, but it’s definitely going to be a process,” the spokeswoman added.
Lionfish has become a poster child for invasive sea creatures. It has few predators but enjoys feeding on native reef fish with reckless abandon. Researchers have found that a single lionfish can make a substantial dent on the population of reef fish usually consumed by snappers, groupers, and other native fish that are important to the seafood industry.
“Lionfish eat herbivores and herbivores eat algae from coral reefs,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. “Without herbivores, algal growth goes unchecked, which can be detrimental to the health of coral reefs.”
For a long time, NOAA researches have said lionfish for human consumption could become a feasible market, if made practical by suppliers and distributors and properly promoted to consumers. Whole Foods could serve as an interesting test case for that.