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Whole Foods serves up venomous lionfish in Florida stores

Customers can help reduce the non-native, invasive species' impact on Florida's coastal waters by eating them, once the poisonous spines have been removed. 

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    Whole Foods is set to sell fresh lionfish in seafood departments, hoping to take a bite out of the non-native, invasive species hurting Florida's offshore reefs
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Customers at several Whole Foods stores in Florida can now buy fresh lionfish beginning on Wednesday.

But while the grocery's chain's decision to sell a venomous species, which is safe to eat once its 18 spines have been removed, might seem perplexing, it's for a good cause: by eating the fish, shoppers are helping reduce the invasive, non-native species' impact on Florida's offshore reefs.

Workers at the grocery chain received special training to learn to remove the spines from the white fish, the company says. "Once caught and placed on ice, the lionfish physically cannot release venom from the gland, ensuring safe consumption for shoppers," Whole Foods says in a statement, calling it a "'Spearited' Catch of the Day."

A study from Cornell University estimates that invasive species cost the United States more than $120 billion a year to control and manage. In response, a growing movement proposes a far tastier solution – working to eradicate the species by cooking and eating them.

The Institute for Applied Ecology began an "Eradication by Mastication" campaign, including creating special recipes and sponsoring an Invasive Species Cook-off. The group is particularly focused on species such as wild turkey, bullfrogs, wild boar, garlic mustard, Himalayan blackberry, and kudzu, Food Tank reported this month.

At Whole Foods, the lionfish is a relative bargain at $8.99 through May 31. After that, prices will increase to $9.99 a pound. Once the spines are removed, it becomes similar to halibut and grouper and can be prepared like other fish, the Sun Sentinel reports.

But proper handling is necessary. A lionfish's flesh isn't poisonous, though glands in the spines still contain venom even when the fish is dead and placed on ice, David Kerstetter, assistant professor at the Halmos College of Natural Sciences & Oceanography at Nova Southeastern University, told the Sun Sentinel.

"Recreational divers and fishers should remember that the safest way to handle any dead lionfish is to simply cut off the spines altogether," he says.

Like other non-native species such as oscars and clown knifefish, lionfish can wreak havoc on the habitat for native species in the Atlantic's coastal waters.

The fish, which were first reported in Florida in 1985, have no natural predators and have had a significant impact on the population of native shrimp and fish, according to Florida's Fish and Wildlife and Conservation Commission.

To hasten their removal, the commission hasn't established commercial bag limits and encourages people to remove them from local waters by spearing, netting, or hooking the red, brown, and white striped fish.

Selling the fish is part of a broader conservation campaign, Whole Foods says. "In an effort to educate the public on the importance of lionfish removal, promotions such as this will encourage continued involvement in proactively and successfully removing lionfish from coastal waters," David Ventura, Whole Foods seafood coordinator for the Florida region, said in a statement.

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