Chef Steve Phelps in his kitchen

Image: Everett Dennison 

Allie ElHage, founder of Sarasota-based Zookeeper, designed a puncture-resistant containment device to hold venomous lionfish once they’re speared by divers. Lionfish, which showed up in the Atlantic Ocean in the 1980s, have spread throughout the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. They have no natural predators here, and their venomous spines make them difficult to handle. They also have a huge appetite and reproduce rapidly, making them a major threat to our marine ecosystem. ElHage sells his products to divers, who then sell their fish to wholesalers, markets (Whole Foods, Lucky’s) and restaurants. Lionfish have a mild flavor and they’re perfectly safe once the spines are removed. “It’s the only fish I eat now,” says ElHage.

Mote Marine & Freshwater Aquaculture Research Program started growing snook in east Sarasota 20 years ago to restore declining fish stock. Because last year’s red tide outbreak damaged spawning adult snook, Mote is expanding its stock. Kevan Main, who heads up the program, is also focused on marine aquaponics—an integrated system of growing marine fish and marine vegetables. Mote is growing red drum and an edible sea vegetable called sea purslane in a series of tanks that work together. “We feed the fish and they feed the plants,” says Main. Both products have commercial applications. Main likes sea purslane—a relative of spinach, but with a milder, saltier flavor—so much she’s planning to release a cookbook, Sea Purslane Cookbook, with recipes for pickling, salads and pesto, to name a few.

Indigenous chef Steve Phelps has long been tops on a list of local cooks devoted to serving Gulf fish with as many local ingredients as possible. But Phelps has gone farther. He wants “to change the food industry,” and Indigenous has partnered with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program that is committed to serving only seafood caught or farmed in ocean-friendly ways.

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