HS students get 'Spat On!'

Aquaculture program serves up invasive lionfish

Savannah Vasquez

FORT WALTON BEACH — Marine biology students at Fort Walton Beach High School were a little fishy Tuesday — lionfish-y that is.

Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance, Okaloosa County and Dewey Destin’s Harborside Restaurant offered an unusual program to the class.

“Our program is actually called 'Spat On!,' and it’s all about oysters in our waterways,” said Amanda Briant, the education coordinator for the CBA. Oyster larvae are called spat. “Today’s lesson was focused on invasive species, so we do talk about the oyster drill (an invasive snail that preys on young oysters), but because lionfish are such a prevalent part in our waters right now, we thought it was really important to bring that up.”

Briant told the class that invasive species have no natural predators which allow an ecosystem to keep a species in check.

In Northwest Florida, she said the most prominent invasive species is the lionfish, a venomous fish native of the Indo-Pacific that was first detected in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

“Lionfish are extremely fast-growing fish,” said Alex Fogg, marine resource coordinator for Okaloosa County. “They spawn 27,000 eggs every two-and-a-half days, and consume 30 different species in the Gulf.”

Tuesday, the students put a small dent in that population growth.

Jim Shirah, the chef at Dewey Destin’s, was on-hand to fillet and cook lionfish for the class. He heated up two skillets, and within minutes had perfectly seared lionfish for the class to taste.

Student William Lynch said that before the class he had heard of lionfish but had never seen or eaten one before.

“It was really good, actually. I enjoyed it,” said Lynch, who noted that the fish was comparable to the flavor of mahi mahi.

Fogg said that over the past 30 years lionfish have become so numerous in the Atlantic and Gulf that they are here to stay. But, he added, there are several ways to combat the species. Besides a countywide effort to harvest lionfish and the hosting of annual lionfish tournaments, Fogg said the fish is also delicious.

“Not only are lionfish really tasty, but they are really good for you,” Fogg said. “They are very high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury levels.”

Marine Biology teacher Staci Danko said the “Spat On!” program was a success in the classroom.

“They are coming into school today waiting for this lionfish,” Danko said. “Their interest and their enthusiasm has definitely increased.”

For more information on the CBA's Spat On! program, visit basinalliance.org.

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