In the wild, the lionfish is often an unwelcome intruder.
The evolutionary prowess of the predatory fish has made it a bane in parts of the underwater world, allowing it to overwhelm local fish populations and rapidly multiply. Its brilliant red and white stripes set it apart, and its poisonous spines deter bigger fish from making it their prey.
One Plymouth entrepreneur thinks he has the solution: He wants to market the exotic fish for consumption.
"This idea is a win-win situation," said David Johnson, president of Traditional Fisheries. "The only thing that loses is the lionfish, and it needs to lose or we could have some devastating consequences on the Caribbean reef system."
The idea came about two years ago, when Johnson read an article in the Economist about the proliferation of lionfish in Caribbean waters. Johnson, who has Mexican relatives who are fisherman, thought he could find a way to commercialize the invasive species.
He went to Mexico and scoured the coast, speaking to a number of fishing cooperatives. At first, they rejected the idea, saying the fish were too small. But Johnson was able to convince them to change their minds.
"When they heard they could make some money off of them, they said, 'All right. Let's take this crazy gringo up on it and see what happens,'" Johnson said.
Traditional Fisheries works with fishing cooperatives in Mexico that generally make their living off of catching lobster and grouper. If the fisherman kills lionfish as well, Johnson's company selects which ones out of the catch it will pay for. Then, the company resells the fish to distributors and restaurants.
So far, Johnson said he has sold about 6,000 lionfish in United States and Mexico, on average for a wholesale price of $8.99 a pound. His lionfish were served in a Smithsonian event on sustainable seafood.
U.S. restaurants that sell lionfish say the demand among consumers is growing. The problem is, it's hard to get large quantities of the fish.
At Fleet Landing Restaurant and Bar in Charleston, S.C., more than 10 fingerling-potato-encrusted lionfish over vegetables sold out in 60 minutes. Meanwhile, Marina Inn at Grande Dunes in Myrtle Beach says some eager customers are on a special e-mail list to alert them when lionfish is available.
"I would love nothing more than to put it on my menu, but I can't do that with the availability problems," said Drew Hedlund, executive chef at Fleet Landing. Hedlund described lionfish as tasting like a mild grouper, with notes of crab and lobster.
Still, Darren Tristano, executive vice president of food industry research and consulting firm Technomic, was skeptical of how popular the fish would be with the public. Traditional Fisheries' cost per pound puts it in line with retail prices for Chilean sea bass or salmon.
Tristano said the lionfish story alone is not enough to have a dramatic impact on consumers, "unless the flavor, quality and freshness is unique enough to differentiate it from other, more appealing types of fish."
But Johnson believes he is on to something. Traditional Fisheries is experimenting with a new technique of catching the lionfish that would allow the company to vacuum them from the ocean. Johnson believes this will speed the process and allow him to sell lionfish that are too small for human consumption to the pet food and fish meal market.
Johnson, 57, says he's invested about $56,000 of his own money into the business. A passionate traveler, he's hitchhiked across the United States, starting in Plymouth and visited areas such as California and Texas. On one of his trips, Johnson went to Xcalak, Mexico, to fish and said he "caught the prettiest girl in town," his wife.
"My goal has been to do something good for the world," Johnson said. "It's not often that a person has an opportunity in front of them to really make a change for the good. That's why I'm pursuing this."
Wendy Lee • 612-673-1712