Tenney Flynn is on a mission. The executive chef of GW Fins in New Orleans wants to help eradicate lionfish from the Gulf of Mexico. The brown and white striped invasive species with venom-tipped spines, which are native to the Indo-Pacific region, first started showing up in the Atlantic waters in 1985, probably dumped there by thoughtless home aquarium owners. They have been decimating local fish populations ever since. “Lionfish eat six fish in the morning and six in the evening,” says Flynn. “And they can eat anything they can fit in their mouth.”
On top of that, they are prolific breeders. Worst of all, they have no natural predators in the Gulf of Mexico – except for humans.
That’s where Flynn comes in. In 2011, he participated in his first lionfish rodeo in Boynton Beach, Florida, where contestants aimed to spear-fish as many of the invaders as possible. (Unfortunately, that’s the best way to catch lionfish, so traditional fishermen don’t usually go after them.). The chef had a twofold epiphany: he could help eradicate the lionfish by personally hunting them down and serving them up to diners. “They’re good to eat, which is hopefully our saving grace,” he says. “Their flesh is very mild, like hog snapper. They’re great sautéed, in ceviche, and as a wild looking whole fish presentation.”
Flynn creates dishes around lionfish whenever he has a chance to go out spearfishing for them, so they’re not a regular menu item. He and his team use the restaurant’s Twitter feed @gwfins to alert diners when they become available.
His favorite part about serving them? “I get to put them on the menu as ‘chef shot,’” he says.
Since his first rodeo, Flynn has become an avid scuba diver, though his skills as a hunter haven’t improved much. “I try to shoot small, cooperative fish,” he jokes.
He makes a point to take part in lionfish rodeos whenever he can. At a recent event in Pensacola, Florida, participants speared 13,000 pounds of fish. The following day, Flynn went out again and scored another 40 fish, including one that was 18-inches long. The chef hopes his efforts help create a demand for lionfish, so more divers will hunt them and diners will demand they appear on menus. This could be a problem that will ultimately be solved one bite at a time.