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Locavores, Meet Invasivores: Cooking and Eating Invasive Lionfish at Haven

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Invasive species are nothing new. Neither is eating them, as anyone who's eaten Cambodian water spinach -- much of it grown here in Houston -- will tell you. But bringing in water spinach from Cambodia and growing it for profit (despite its status over here as a noxious weed) is entirely different from eating species which have invaded on their own.

In Louisiana, it's oyster drills, where the invasive creatures that can destroy entire oyster beds are marketed and consumed as "Biganos snails" -- similar to escargot. In Texas and other parts of the Gulf, black tiger shrimp -- cannibals that eat smaller shrimp before destroying their homes -- are being considered as alternatives to regular Gulf shrimp. This would allow Gulf shrimp populations to rebuild while removing the harmful but delicious black tiger shrimp from the waters.

Chef Randy Evans at Haven has a similar solution for the lionfish, which has been equally destructive as the black tiger shrimp since 2011. Although the lionfish -- a species native to the Pacific Ocean -- was first spotted in the Gulf several years ago, its numbers have mushroomed since then. Scientists are worried about the long-term effect the lionfish will have on the Gulf, especially in light of what took place recently in the Caribbean.

"Within three years, lionfish had colonized the entire Caribbean and are reported to have eaten or displaced about 60 percent of the native species on reefs there," reported Ben Rains in the Mobile Press-Register. "Lionfish have enormous mouths in relation to the size of their bodies, similar to a largemouth bass. They can consume fish nearly as big as they are."

The solution to this, being further up the food chain? Eat them, Evans says.

To that end, Haven is offering its second annual Lionfish Dinner on Wednesday, February 20. The last Lionfish Dinner sold out quickly, and seats are limited this time around too.

For $60 a person, Evans will prepare a four-course meal featuring lionfish in three of those courses (you're off the hook -- pardon the pun -- for dessert). That includes a raw lionfish course from Cove, the restaurant-within-a-restaurant helmed by sous chef Jean-Philippe Gaston as well as two cooked dishes: a crispy lionfish spring roll and lionfish a la Veracruzana.

In addition to the many lionfish on plates that night, one of the invaders will be present alive and in a tank, along with representatives from the Houston Zoo, The Nature Conservancy Texas Chapter and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Galveston office. Along with dinner, they will give a a short presentation outlining the lionfish's threat to the Gulf, including Texas coastal areas where the fish has already been found.

Working with Pescadores de Vigía Chico y Cozumel, a Mexico-based environmental fishing cooperative, the lionfish Haven is serving that night will have been caught by the fishermen there the day before. One day soon, the demand for lionfish could be so great that Gulf waters are free of the invasive species.

After all, it's not like we don't know how to wipe out entire populations of fish. This time, at least, it's for the greater good.

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