Aquarium to host free presentation on catching, eating venomous lionfish

The lionfish, an invasive species from the Far East, was first seen off Florida in the 1980s.

So, how do you filet a fish that fans out with prickly, stinging spines from its fins?

If you go

WHAT: Invasive lionfish collecting and handling workshop, with cooking demonstration.WHEN: Thursday, 6-8 p.m.WHERE: South Carolina Aquarium, 100 Aquarium Wharf, Charleston.COST: Free.For more information about lionfish, go to www.reef.org.

You know the answer — very, very delicately.

Lionfish facts

Also called zebrafish, firefish, red firefish, scorpion volitans, devil firefish.Have fleshy tentacles above their eyes and below the mouth; fan-like pectoral fins; long, separated dorsal spines and anal spines.Sting can last for days and cause extreme pain, sweating, respiratory distress and even paralysis.A single female can spawn more than 2 million eggs per year.Grow as large as 18 inches.Eat other fish up to half their body length. Prey on commercial fish such as grouper and snapper, and can virtually wipe them out in areas lionfish densely populate.Asian native species now found from Florida to North Carolina; first spotted off Florida in 1985. Population in western Atlantic now well into the millions, beyond research ability to estimate.National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Reef Environmental Education Foundation.

Drew Hedlund, the executive chef at Fleet Landing restaurant, used to have his crew line up assembly-line-style to handle lionfish, wear puncture-proof gloves and clip the spines one by one before filleting. But familiarity evidently breeds content. Now he and other chefs are just careful not to touch the spines.

“Everybody makes a big deal about (the sting),” Hedlund said. “I’ve been stung a few times. I wouldn’t say it’s life altering.”

Hedlund joins a Reef Environmental Eduction Foundation presentation on lionfish at the South Carolina Aquarium on Thursday. As part of an effort to control the population of the invasive species, the Key Largo-based REEF wants to encourage people to report sightings, net or spear the fish when they can and, as a matter of fact, eat them.

Hedlund will be there to show how it’s done … to a succulent potato-encrusted entree or a red ruby grapefruit ceviche.

The lionfish is a seductively beautiful scorpion fish. It’s so colorfully camouflaged that it blends almost invisibly into the coral like a rattlesnake blends into brush.

The fish, native to the Far East, first was spotted here off Florida in the 1980s, and is suspected to be here because of aquarium releases. The main problem is that lionfish are prolific; those few releases have bred like the plague. Now millions of millions of them rove as far north as North Carolina, where cold winters finally knock them back.

They are now found by the dozens or more at times on reefs 80 feet or deeper off South Carolina, although cold winters here do kill back the population.

Lionfish eat commercial fish such as grouper and snapper. Their appetite is voracious; when lionfish densely populate a reef, they can virtually wipe out other species.

Making a meal of one isn’t so difficult if you’re careful, said Arnold Postell, aquarium dive safety officer. “You can go right up to them and bag them up. All they do is flare out the spines. They don’t flee. They don’t charge you.”

The sting, by the way, has been compared to a jellyfish sting. The dish has been compared to grouper or snapper with tender white meat.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

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