l Massa grew up in an Italian family, learning the art of cooking while helping his mother trim tenderloins and prepare mounds of pasta on Sundays. She instilled in him an abiding love of gourmet food, one that was nurtured in Europe and expanded with Creole cuisine while working for the empire of celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse in New Orleans kitchens. These days, Massa is executive chef at a popular seafood restaurant in the coastal fishing town of Destin on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

The town also is home to a far less welcome resident: The lionfish. The nonnative and voracious predator has in recent decades invaded the Sunshine State’s coastal reefs, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem.

Massa is one of those leading the charge on an increasingly popular way of dealing with the threat — one with a surprising range of environmental benefits: Serving them for dinner.  “With lionfish, it’s beneficial to harvest more of them. The more we get out, the more other fish, like snapper and grouper, will survive,” says Massa. “Plus, they taste good.”

A growing number of foodies, conservationists, and government officials are encouraging people to eat the nonnative animals. The way they see it, serving the mild, flaky fish — say, with forbidden rice or in a mango-accented ceviche — is an excellent way to combat its proliferation and mitigate the damage it is doing in the Caribbean and along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. The animals pose so dire a threat that Florida has placed a bounty on their tails and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration argues, “If you can’t beat them, eat them!

It’s perhaps a surprising position for an organization that typically promotes sustainable fishing. “We want to fish them unsustainably, in a way, for conservation purposes,” says Steve Gittings, the science coordinator for that agency’s National Marine Sanctuaries program. “The whole point of getting rid of them is to get rid of them.”

The merciless campaign is a prime example of a rising effort to make nonnative species like wild pigs and garden snails a viable alternative to more popular, and carbon-intensive, proteins — particularly as climate change drives invasives into new regions. Lionfish are an attractive substitute for overfished species like halibut and snapper because they are relatively abundant; making them a common dinnertime choice would ease pressure on the Atlantic’s strained fisheries.

Lionfish tastes a bit like halibut or snapper (and can replace them in most dishes) and is winning fans at those restaurants serving it. For now, though, lionfish remains hard to find in the U.S. beyond Florida, and even there it is a pricey delicacy. The tenacious survivors are labor-intensive to catch. Realizing the conservation and sustainability benefits of lionfish hinges on ongoing efforts to develop effective methods of hunting them.

“There is a demand,” says Gittings. “People would like lionfish. It’s just hard to get them.”

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