By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Chris Sherrill of Orange Beach, Ala., has a new mantra for anglers on the Alabama Gulf Coast – “Wait, don’t throw that back.”

Sherrill, the head chef and co-owner of Flora-Bama Yacht Club, which is across the road from the famous watering hole, is on a quest to get anglers who catch a wide variety of saltwater fish to keep several species that were once considered inedible.

Some of the species that Sherrill and his sous chef, Haikel Harris, have developed new methods of preparing include stingray, gafftopsail catfish and ladyfish.

What prompted Sherrill to try to make these “bycatch” species palatable was his experience with lionfish, an invasive species with venomous spines but delicious, flaky flesh.

Lionfish have infected many areas of the Gulf Coast, including Alabama. They are voracious eaters and compete with native fish species for forage. Because lionfish seldom are caught on hook and line, the colorful fish is harvested by divers.

There has been a push by everyone in the marine sciences to try to limit the lionfish population, and Sherrill was enlisted to promote the preparation of lionfish for the table.

That effort has been so successful it has somewhat backfired for Sherrill in terms of prices and availability.

“About 18 months ago, lionfish was an unknown threat,” Sherrill said. “There was a small group of people who knew it was a problem, that there was an invasion, but did not realize the magnitude. In December 2013, we formed the Gulf Coast Lionfish Coalition to tackle the problem, where concerned citizens, divers and chefs got together and said we were going to hit this head on. We said we were going to spearhead a project, no pun intended, to tackle the lionfish problem. As we got into it, people thought poison and venom were the same things. We were able to educate the public that there are venomous spines but no poison in the flesh. We proved that lionfish is an edible species. In fact, it’s one of my favorites.”

As the education effort was underway in Orange Beach and Pensacola, there were similar efforts on the East Coast of Florida and in the Florida Keys. As the niche caught on, lionfish became extremely popular. Suddenly, there was high demand and low supply. Subsequently, the prices spiked. Sherrill was paying $3.50 a pound for whole fish 18 months ago. That price has almost tripled since. Lionfish fillets went from $8 to $17 a pound.

“My fear is that we’ve done too good of a job, and I’m trying to change the mindset back to the grassroots effort of killing every lionfish out there because they are extremely dangerous to the ecosystem,” Sherrill said. “A marketable lionfish is about 9 inches long. An egg-bearing female is about 5 inches long. I feel like divers are passing over those fish in favor of the marketable fish. Of course, you only have a limited time to be submerged, and your time is likely going to be spent taking those marketable fish. That’s a concern for me.”

Because of the unintended consequences of promoting lionfish, Sherrill wanted to shift the focus to other species of fish he considered underutilized.

He approached the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources about doing cooking demonstrations for a variety of species caught on Gulf State Park Pier in Gulf Shores.

“We have been given permission by States Parks and the Department of Conservation to go onto the Gulf State Park Pier,” Sherrill said. “We go into someone’s cooler, with their permission, and pick out underutilized species and cook the fish on the pier for them while shooting video. Say you were fishing on the pier and you had a bluefish in the cooler. We would walk up and explain what we were doing, ask permission and show them how to filet and cook it right there. Plate it and give it back them, right there on the pier.

“In addition to the pier, we’re talking about doing marinas, cleaning stations. You’ve got people catching fish on the beach. We have plans to do this for species that fishermen deem inedible or undervalued.”

 “If certain fish are basically uncatchable because of the laws, like red snapper, then we’re going to educate the public that there are other great species to go after, like gafftopsail catfish, bluefish, stingray. Stingray is absolutely phenomenal. You know the tender part of

a pork loin that just falls apart when you cook it? It tastes just like that. It’s unbelievable. That’s inshore. Offshore there are bearded brotullas, barrelfish and other species, like short bigeye, an orange-colored fish with big, huge eyes. People don’t know what to do with them so they throw them back.”

Sherrill and Harris have also been able to utilize several species that just about everybody considers as bait.

“One of the most mind-boggling things we’ve come up with is raw, sashimi pinfish,” Sherrill said. “It’s super. People use it for bait, but when you cut it open, it’s a white, translucent flesh that glistens in the light. I grew up catching crappie and bream the same size as some of these pinfish. I said surely we’re missing something here. I was right, if you get the right size.

“And we’ve been taking skipjacks, ladyfish, and making fish cakes out of them. We take them, skin them and boil them in a little crab boil. We then hand-patty them and season them with bread crumbs like crab cakes and fry them. They need to be ultra fresh. They taste better than salmon patties to me. We’ve cooked oyster toadfish and even silver eels in an Asian presentation.”

The videos will be posted on YouTube soon, but there may be more distribution options open later.

“We’ve been contacted by a production company, Bread and Butter Productions out of Atlanta, who are interested in what we can produce,” Sherrill said. “It could go in a million directions from there. It’s exclusively meant to be an educational effort.

“State Parks really liked the idea of the videos because it shows how families can come down to the beach on a budget, get out on the pier, catch some things and then show them how to prepare the fish they catch. We will show them the preparations.”

Sherrill seems to be constantly brainstorming for new ideas. He and a partner came up with a new group they call NUISANCE (Nuisance, Underutilized, Invasive, Sustainable, Available, Noble, Culinary, Edibility) Group.

“We’re still working on the name, but we know we want it to contain nuisance, underutilized and sustainable,” he said. “We want to focus on many other things that are invasive and sustainable, like wild hogs, kudzu and tiger shrimp if that threat becomes strong. Farmers are begging people to find uses for wild hogs because they are destroying crops at an unbelievable rate.”

Despite his best efforts, Sherrill said several species of fish caught regularly on the Gulf Coast caused him to just walk away.

“Hardhead catfish is one,” he said. “I just can’t do it. Jack crevalle is extremely tough and hard to make taste good. It’s bloody and unappealing. Bonita is another one. It’s just too bloody. And we’ve caught some lizard fish, and they’re just funky.

“But we’re having fun. We’re catching these fish ourselves, a lot of times off of docks. We’re eating everything we catch, or at least trying to.”

PHOTOS: (David Rainer) Chef Chris Sherrill displays the Chargrilled Sting Ray with fried prosciutto and Worcestershire vinaigrette and Firecracker Gafftopsail Catfish, two of the delicious dishes that he and sous chef Haikel Harris prepare from underutilized fish species.

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