Mt. Pleasant Whole Foods starts carrying lionfish

Lionfish and grits with crispy lionfish peppadew grit croquette and green tomato chowchow from Fleet Landing at the 2015 Charleston Wine + Food Festival's Gospel Brunch.

Charleston area seafood buyers now have the opportunity to help test the theory that increased consumer demand for lionfish will motivate fishermen to ramp up their harvest of the invasive species.

Whole Foods Market this month started offering whole lionfish for $9.99 a pound at select stores, including its Mt, Pleasant location. “By reducing the number of lionfish in the wild, Whole Foods Market will help improve the serious environmental threat they cause,” a press release promises.

The destructive capacity of lionfish, which cooks up white and flaky, is well established. They’re gobbling up overfished and endangered native species in the waters off Florida and the Caribbean, and irreparably throwing off fragile reef ecosystems. Without any known predators in the region, lionfish are thriving: A single female lionfish can release 2 million eggs annually.

One of the most appealing solutions to the lionfish plague involves eating the enemy. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has mounted an “Eat Lionfish” campaign, and, closer to home, the South Carolina Aquarium encourages people to order lionfish at Fleet Landing, a local leader in the edible conservation movement. A Fleet Landing chef last year competed in the Celebrity Chef Lionfish Challenge at the SeaWeb Seafood Summit.

But as a disappointed diner last November reported on a message board, there wasn’t any lionfish available when he visited the downtown restaurant.

While there isn’t a shortage of lionfish in the sea, they’re notoriously difficult to catch. Because of their spikes, lionfish can’t be netted, and their habitat isn’t compatible with trawling. Each lionfish must be speared individually, an expensive and inefficient task.

“Proponents say when enough consumers register their desire, more suppliers will enter the market,” a 2015 TakePart story explained. “In the case of lionfish, however, the economic mechanism is not that simple. The manner in which greater demand lowers prices is by suppliers achieving economies of scale, which means streamlining production and increasing volume. That can’t happen with lionfish.”

According to TakePart, experts who doubt the effectiveness of the devouring strategy say consumers don’t stand a chance of depleting lionfish populations unless selective traps are developed and deployed.

Still, the Whole Foods team is optimistic.

“We hope that selling lionfish in our stores will create more demand for fishermen to scale their operations and catch more lionfish,” spokeswoman Lauren Bernath says.

Barring adverse weather conditions, she adds, Whole Foods will stock lionfish on a weekly basis.