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New Braunfels restaurant serves exotic fish in effort to protect coral reefs

The Downtowner helping to control lionfish population

NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas – "They put it on the menu and I had to get some,” said Larry Schodts, a regular patron at The Downtowner in New Braunfels.

What is the hot, new menu item everyone is ordering? It is an invasive, venomous, but unique-looking species: the Lionfish.

"It’s a white, delicious, flaky fish,” explained Chad Niland, Executive Chef and owner of The Downtowner.  “It takes to many different styles of cooking very easily."

Niland’s restaurant is one of only a few to serve lionfish in Central Texas.

"It just really fits into what we want to do and also it's delicious,” said Niland.

Part of a growing movement, the idea is to eat as much of the invasive, spiny fish as possible to protect the environment.

"Pretty much they're going to be everywhere, unless we really start eating them,” said Niland.

"The belief is that they either came out of a public aquarium or a private aquarium,” explained Nelson Marchucci, Aquarium Manager at the San Antonio Zoo.  “Once they got introduced into the local waterways, it sort of just took off."

Experts believe that the fish were introduced to the United States’ coastal areas in the 1980s. Originating from the Indian and Pacific Oceans, lionfish reproduce at incredible rates and have no natural predator. As a result, they are doing harm to area reefs in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

"They're hurting the reef by eating all the fish that our big fish like to eat,” said Marchucci.

In other words, lionfish throw off the balance of the ecosystem. While the waters off of the Florida coast have been plagued by the species, they can also now be found in the Gulf of Mexico around Texas. Catching them takes special skill.

“You have to spear them. Trying to grab them with your hands or fish them with a hook is probably a bad idea,” said Marchucci.

That is because lionfish’s spines contain venom, which can hurt humans and fish alike.

“You don’t want to come into contact with that,” said Marchucci. “If you get stung by that, you’re going to be really irritated, your hands are going to swell, you’re heart rate is going to go up.”

But, when eating the fish, there is no need to worry.  The spines are clipped and the fish are perfectly safe to eat.  At The Downtowner, lionfish are served many different ways, including in a po boy sandwich and blackened.

Niland sees it as a win, win situation.

“We're taking this invasive species out of the ocean and we're eating our way out of a problem,” he said.

And his customers agree:

"Anytime you can help the environment, one tasty fish at a time, it’s awesome,” added Schodts.

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