Lion tamer: Alex Chequer, of the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, speared two lionfish to win Sunday’s tournament, which was a bid to cull the pests. *Photos by James Whittaker
Lion tamer: Alex Chequer, of the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, speared two lionfish to win Sunday’s tournament, which was a bid to cull the pests. *Photos by James Whittaker
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Once feared as a ­venomous predator, the ­lionfish is now a delicacy.

The striking orange striped fish - which has a distinctive 'mane' of ­poisonous stemmed spines - may soon be on the menu at Bermuda's restaurants.

Lionfish are eating their way through Atlantic reefs like a "plague of ­locusts".

They have decimated reef life in the Bahamas by feasting on juvenile fish.

Good management and colder waters have helped keep them at bay here.

But environmentalists fear the pest, which breeds and feeds voraciously, could have a similarly devastating impact.

They believe the best way to control the invasion is to make them a commercially viable target for anglers.

"This is a fish you can feel good about eating," said Chris Flook, coordinator of the Bermuda Lionfish Project.

So far, he has convinced three restaurants to ­consider serving them.

Tempura

Once the poison fins have been removed, a tasty fleshy fillet remains and tastes like a cross between grouper and hogfish.

Chris Malpas, head chef at Butterfield Bank, has been working with the lionfish project and served up fillets in a tempura­ batter after Sunday's lionfish spear-fishing tournament.

He said: "They went down very well. It's ­definitely an eating fish.

"Once you take the spines out it is very tasty."

Jean Claude Garzia, head chef at the Beau Rivage restaurant at the Newstead Resort, is another convert.

He said: "The meat is as good as a grouper - light, white, not too strong. I would put it on my menu.

"It could be a main course or an appetizer.

"Probably I would try to give it a Bermuda feel - coat it in coconut and serve it with banana and ­almonds or a mango salsa."

Mr. Garzia is one of ­several restaurateurs who are willing to put the fish on the menu.

They believe it will be a hit with adventurous ­diners keen to try something different.

The challenge now is to convince fishermen to catch them.

If the lionfish ­becomes a commercially viable target for anglers, Bermuda will have a ready-made search and destroy team to control their numbers.

Mr. Flook said: "The only way to make it a self-­running programme without investing a ton of money is to create a commercial fishery. Eat 'em to beat 'em.

"It's an easy fish to catch and it is only ­beneficial to remove them from the ­environment.

"There wouldn't be size restrictions or bag limits.

"Take as many as you want. What other fish can you say that about?"

The biggest problem with getting lionfish on menus is the lack of product.

Only four were caught in Sunday's tournament, ­organized by Mr. Flook and Fantasea Diving's Matt Strong through his budding ­environmental charity Groundswell.

Scuba divers armed with spears scoured the reef in the all-day event but the fish proved elusive.

Mr. Flook said: "It is a good thing not many were caught. It shows, ­perhaps, that the things we've been doing are working.

"But we are going to see more and more lionfish over the years.

"We are already beyond the point of being able to exterminate them so we msut keep the pressure on.

"We're pretty sure fishermen see them regularly, we just need to convince them to bring them in."

The lobster season is ­expected to yield more ­lionfish as they get caught in the pots.

Mr. Flook is working to convince lawmakers to ­allow this "by-catch" to be sold. Those who ­believe the statistics indicate that lionfish are nothing to ­worry about should ­consider the cautionary tale of the Bahamian reef.

The first lionfish was sighted off Nasau in 2004.

Last month, a one-day fishing competition saw 1,400 captured.

The Atlantic ­population of lionfish, numbering in hundreds of thousands, is believed to stem from just eight ­females accidentally freed from a Florida aquarium when Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992.

"Lionfish are eating their way through the [Atlantic] reefs like a plague of ­locusts. This may become the most devastating ­marine invasion in ­history," said Mark Hixon, a coral reef ecology expert at Oregon State University, in a recent interview with the Miami Herald.

Mr. Flook said: "We've been proactive in Bermuda but need to stay on top of it.

"They breed like rabbits. Two of the fish caught on Sunday were females and full of eggs, so that is potentially 60,000 lionfish we helped get off the reef."