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Las Vegas chef Moonen loses money serving lionfish for Earth Day

Updated May 3, 2017 - 3:29 pm

Rick Moonen has met the enemy, and it is his — his food, that is.

Moonen, chef-owner of RM Seafood and Rx Boiler Room at Mandalay Bay, is known internationally for his dedication to seafood sustainability, and that includes fighting the scourge of the invasive lionfish. After returning from serving as master of ceremonies at a recent lionfish-cooking competition in Bermuda among chefs representing six America’s Cup nations, he commemorated Earth Day at RM Seafood by serving two lionfish dishes, though only for a weekend.

You won’t see lionfish very often on menus here or elsewhere because it’s generally too expensive to be commercially viable, and you may not have heard of it at all. Moonen and Brett Ottolenghi, owner of Artisanal Foods, a Las Vegas-based purveyor to most Strip casinos, are working to change both of those things.

The lionfish, which is native to the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, has invaded the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, possibly because of releases by tropical-fish hobbyists. David Ventura, seafood coordinator for the Florida region of Whole Foods Market, said the first sighting off Florida was in 1985, but the population “really exploded” in 2000. Away from its natural habitat it has no predators and has been known to eat as many as 70 other species — anything it can fit its mouth around, Ventura said. It becomes sexually mature after one year, one can lay 2 million eggs a year and a female can live to 18 years old.

As a result, the lionfish population in the Atlantic is 17 times as dense as in its natural habitat, and they’ve been known to reach 18.75 inches there, compared to 13 inches naturally. Each one can eat as many as 20 fish per half-hour, Moonen said, adding that one lionfish can reduce the number of other fish on a reef by 80 percent in five weeks. And Ottolenghi said they’ve been spotted as far north as Maine and as far south as Brazil.

“They’re the perfect killer, beautiful and deadly,” Moonen said. “They have white flesh — white, buttery meat, kind of like a Dover sole. It really has some good resilience, doesn’t turn mushy, doesn’t fall apart.”

What this means for people in Las Vegas and elsewhere is that while you’re not likely to be eating lionfish anytime soon, many of those seafoods you’re fond of eating — halibut and lobster among them — are threatened by them. And Moonen said because they kill fish that eat algae on coral reefs, the reefs are in danger of being suffocated.

Currently, the only way to catch lionfish is by spearfishing (or as accidental bycatch in lobster traps). And Ottolenghi pointed out that while even the most accomplished spear-fisher can catch fish only as deep as 40 feet, the largest concentrations of lionfish are down 150 to 900 feet. “It costs $30 a pound to get filleted lionfish that have been hand-speared,” Moonen said. “I put it on my menu for Earth Day. I don’t put it on my menu to make money; I basically lose money.” (Moonen served fennel-cured lionfish crudo for $22, and herb-crusted Lionfish a la Milanese for $49.)

Ventura said Whole Foods stores in Florida started selling it last year, and all 26 stores in the state now carry it, spines removed, and whole or filleted. It’s caught by spear-fishing divers in the waters off Florida. The company’s Southwest, Rocky Mountain, Northern California and South regions also carry it when available. (Southern Nevada is in Whole Foods’ Southern Pacific region.)

Ottolenghi said there’s been an unintended consequence of Whole Foods’ sales of lionfish: “It made prices go way up. It already was too expensive for me to get into restaurants here in Las Vegas.”

“Price is the biggest hurdle,” Moonen agreed. “The availability has to become more consistent. A commercial fishery has not been developed, and that’s what they’re trying to do.”

Moonen said the owner of iRobot has developed a robot that can operate 400 feet deep, is operated by computer from shore and has electronic prongs that zap and retrieve the unsuspecting lionfish.

Ottolenghi has himself developed a lionfish trap, which he hopes to test in Mexico.

In the meantime, he said, traditional methods have to be increased.

“We need to get the fish out of the Gulf in Mexico,” he said. “Labor’s cheaper there, and (the lionfish are) abundant. And spearfishing is an actual profession. If we can tap into that and work out partnerships with these Mexican spear fishermen, the amount that will come onto the market is so big that it’ll bring prices down to where people can afford it.”

That, however, won’t be enough.

“It’s nice to think we could eat our way to a solution, but we’d have to eat 27 percent of the adult population every month just to get ahead of population growth,” he said. “The way we solved the malaria epidemic in the world is they introduced genetically modified male mosquitoes; they breed with the natural mosquitoes and the offspring die and they die themselves. We need to introduce a genetically modified lionfish.”

But efforts need to start now, he emphasized.

Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.

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