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Mehmet sits by the old harbour of Kaş and slowly works his way through a bucket of lionfish. As he works, an assortment of animals in the old harbor gather around him: cats, dogs, and even sea turtles swimming in front of him. They’re used to getting their share of the leftovers of the lionfish Mehmet cleans.
Having first learned to clean lionfish by trial and error, Mehmet has been doing this in Kaş for 4 years now. The amount of work varies and depends on the season and weather: sometimes no fishers go out, on other days Mehmet cleans up to 60 kilograms of fish. The fish he cleans is delivered to restaurants that then serve it to their customers.
As the Mediterranean warms up, invasive tropical species such as lionfish are wreaking havoc on the marine ecosystem. This has serious implications for the health of the system in the future. As decades of overfishing have depleted native predators like dusky groupers that are fond of lionfish, fishers can now help the ecosystem rebuild its balance by catching these voracious species instead of native species.
Mehmet picks up the fish he’s cleaning. “Look, this is an expanded stomach. Let’s see what's in it. This is such a small fish, but it has eaten dozens of baby fish, even more. About 20 to 25 baby fish coming out of a single stomach.” A lionfish stomach can grow up to three times its original size, Mehmet points out, and can eat all kinds of species in addition to fish.
“Our goal is to make lionfish edible, to show their economic value and to help fishers to generate income out of them. This way, the fishers will be willing to target them,” Mehmet says. At first, the fishers were reluctant. Lionfish is not easy to clean and there was no economic value to catching the species. But, Mehmet says, attitudes are changing. “When we showed what we found in the stomachs of this fish to fellow fishers, they realized the danger of it.” If lionfish eat everything in their path, there will be nothing else left.
The entire Mediterranean is under threat from invasive species, and it is estimated that almost 1000 alien species have already migrated into the warming waters of the Mediterranean Sea and replaced endemic species. Mehmet says. “We must fight in some way, and the most effective way to fight is by introducing them into the economy and encouraging fishers to catch them.”
From the sea to the plate
Across the picturesque village, Dragoman Bahce, a restaurant attached to the diving center of the same name is getting ready for an evening of welcoming patrons. Elif Terzioğlu, the owner and manager of the restaurant, tells the story of how theirs became one of a handful of restaurants that serve lionfish in the area.
Elif says that it was due to the insistence of Murat Draman, the owner of the diving center, that they first began serving lionfish. “As a diving company, actually, you need the fish in the water, not on your plate,” Elif says. But, if you know that lionfish living underwater is dangerous and destroys other species, you might think differently. “So we wanted to help the Mediterranean by introducing lionfish to eat. It's a good way to help the environment by eating.”
At first, getting lionfish for the menu wasn’t easy. “The fishermen didn't want to take them out in the beginning, because they couldn’t sell them, so it wasn’t useful for them at all.” But after a lot of talking, they found both fishermen willing to catch the fish and Mehmet, who was willing to clean for restaurant use.
Theirs is a lionfish twist on an old bar classic: fish and chips. “It wasn't popular in the beginning,” Elif says. But, slowly people started to discover the dish. “First, the divers came in for it, because they know. Now it’s getting more popular and people come in to ask for lionfish.”
Hatice Bozdağ, who’s worked as the cook at Dragoman for many years, says that lionfish is easier and faster to cook than many other types of fish. “Whoever tastes lionfish likes it so much. They all come back. I know one person who came to the restaurant four or five times. That’s how much they like the fish. Well, I think it's delicious.”
Today, there are only two restaurants in Kaş that serve lionfish. WWF is working in Kaş and other areas to increase the demand for new invasive species with public awareness actions and by training fishers to catch and clean them safely.