New York City is home to thousands of restaurants, including eight places offering a hybrid Chinese-Mexican menu, and at least 12 spots where you can eat a goat’s head. But if you’d like to dine on lionfish, your options narrow to one: Norman’s Cay, the small Caribbean eatery that opened last year on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Co-owner Ryan Chadwick is proud to serve this ecosystem-disrupting fish, which was introduced into the Atlantic 30-odd years ago and has been preying on native species there ever since. He figures it’s his contribution to keeping the troublesome invader in check. But there’s a reason he’s the only restaurateur in New York printing lionfish on the menu. Although they’re disastrously abundant in the wild, these fish remain nearly impossible to obtain. In fact Norman’s Cay was only able to serve lionfish at its October 4 opening because Chadwick spent the previous week underwater in the Bahamas, collecting fish from the reefs and flying them back in a cooler.

Despite the scale of the lionfish invasion, Chadwick maintains that a commercial market could make a dent in the problem.Chadwick charged more than $40 for his whole-fried lionfish entrée on opening day. After months of working tirelessly to jerry-rig a supply chain, he’s been able to move the price down to $27 and add two other lionfish items to the menu. He hopes to eventually serve as a lionfish purveyor for other restaurants in the region.

“I’m too far in to give up,” says Chadwick, a tall, tanned Northeasterner whose relaxed demeanor belies a strong entrepreneurial drive. Despite the scale of the lionfish invasion, Chadwick maintains that a commercial market could make a dent in the problem.

Sucking up Species

Plucked from the Indian and Pacific oceans, lionfish have long been popular in the aquarium trade for their fantastic display of brick-red stripes and venomous spines. Biologists believe someone first dumped them off Florida’s coast in the 1980s; the population mushroomed after 2000 as the invaders moved toward North Carolina, colonized the Caribbean and advanced into the Gulf of Mexico. Insatiable and indiscriminate hunters, they suck up dozens of species of economically, ecologically and recreationally valuable reef fish. And nothing will eat them — except, Chadwick hopes, us.

After finding lionfish meat to be white and mild, officials at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launched an “eat ’em to beat ’em” campaign in 2010. Given strong evidence from the depletion of Atlantic cod that humans are capable of fishing a species to near extinction, NOAA surmised that perhaps we could do it on purpose this time.

Three years later there are still no major distributors dealing in lionfish due to the uncertain supply and demand. But Chadwick didn’t know that when he decided that the invasive predator would be the flagship dish at his new restaurant.

“I figured we’re helping the ecosystem by creating a demand for this fish and also doing something that other restaurants aren’t doing. It was a win-win,” says Chadwick, who also owns the Nantucket-inspired Grey Lady restaurant in New York. “I didn’t realize that there was no fishery for it.”

Catch Your Own

An entrepreneur whose previous areas of focus included ice supply, dry cleaning, delivery services and crib rentals, Chadwick stumbled into this latest venture on a trip to the Bahamas a year ago, when he met a group of Tufts University biology students who told him that lionfish were threatening the reefs — and, incidentally, were also delicious.

After a couple of trips to catch his own fish, Chadwick convinced a seafood supplier in the Bahamas to send some dive fishermen out for lionfish. The fish they harvested, however, were often too small and at times not available at all, and he ultimately decided he couldn’t justify paying the costs of international shipping for an inconsistent product.

What he hasn’t considered is replacing lionfish with a more profitable, less sustainable catch.For now, he’s turned to a fish market in the Florida Keys, where lionfish wander into traps meant for spiny lobsters.  Chadwick pays a dollar more for lionfish than local restaurants pay, and has them shipped overnight to New York. The only problem is that lobster season is only from August to April. To fill the seasonal gap, Chadwick started cold-calling dive shops in the Keys earlier this spring, aiming to convince commercial or recreational divers to spear lionfish for him. He even put up a Craigslist ad.

What he hasn’t considered is replacing lionfish with a more profitable, less sustainable catch. “I could do tilapia tacos all day and make a lot of money,” says Chadwick. “But it’s not helping the ecosystem, and it’s not doing what we said we would do.”View Ensia homepage